21 Jan 2014

Third mobile company demands answers over Dishfire

It’s been nearly a week since Channel 4 News revealed that British spies were tapping into a secret US database, Dishfire, to trawl through the text messages of British citizens, potentially circumventing strict UK laws.

Today, Britain’s biggest mobile phone company, Everything Everywhere (EE) has joined the line up of those looking for answers.

They’re worried that British agents have potentially been hoovering up vast amounts of so-called “metadata” on their customers – information about who text messages were sent to and from, when and where – without first seeking permission

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In a statement, EE told Channel 4 News: “We were not aware of Dishfire and have asked the relevant authorities for clarification.”

It joins Vodafone and O2 which last week told us that they too were demanding immediate answers.

Under British laws, to access customer metadata requires permission under the regulation of investigatory powers act, or RIPA. And to access the actual content of a message needs a specific warrant, which can only be signed off by a secretary of state.
And while the GCHQ documents do warn against accessing Dishfire without a warrant, there’s no mention of the legal requirement under RIPA to seek permission to search the metadata.

Dominic Raab, a Conservative backbencher, told me tonight: “I think the suspicion from the latest UK disclosures is that either the law was bent, if not outright broken, to get round the usual safeguards under UK law for this kind of accessing and certainly this kind of trawling of all of our data.

“And it’s been done in what appears to be an untargeted way, a pretty indiscriminate way, and I think there are real questions to answer about its legality and why parliament wasn’t given more information about this.”

He added: “There is a real risk that… it would expose the taxpayer to potentially not only litigation but huge fines through the courts and I think we should be worried both about the impact on privacy, but also about the potential liabilities that are being incurred.”

If it turns out there was some overarching permission given to agents to access Dishfire metadata, why won’t William Hague say so? Instead the foreign secretary simply insists that everything GCHQ has done is legal, and that ours is one of the tightest security regimes in the world.

Hazel Blears, a Labour member of the government-appointed intelligence and security committee, says both she and the committee knew that GCHQ had the capability to collect metadata. But did they know about Dishfire?

A week on and there are still more questions raised by the Dishfire revelations than there are answers.

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