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

Pre News refresh player – this is the default player for the C4 news site – please do not delete. Ziad

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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2 reader comments

  1. Andy says:

    I suspect most people, my self included, don’t understand exactly what information is captured under the umbrella of metadata. In tonight’s interview of the ex head of GCHQ he said it was who called who and when. Probably accurate in the 1950’s, thought even then it would include for how long and how often. However in the 2010’s phones are much smarter. Someone should ask him “if I was calling you on my smart phone and started driving down the road maybe driving 10 miles, hands free of course. Just exactly what metadata would you collect about my phone call, my journey, maybe even my driving. If Pay as you go drive technology, which is based on smart phone technology, can track your car, understand your speed and driving habits, all based on metadata, what can a smart phone in your pocket tell about you?

  2. Jonathan Targett says:

    I was reassured by the comments from Hazel Blears during the piece and from Sir David Omand afterwards in the studio about how private data collected by the intelligence services in the UK is used. Personally I’m willing to believe that the citizenry isn’t being investigated unlawfully by UK intelligence authorities, but I feel John Snow made a valid point. Namely that UK citizens deserve the same guarantees from other governments, which are granted access to the same metadata (and message content) by the UK government under, presumably reciprocal, treaty and vice versa; e.g. the intelligence sharing with the US government that Channel 4 has alerted the public to.

    Frankly there remain concerns about who does (or doesn’t) have access to mobile phone metadata. Your own and a recent Financial Times examination showed the extent to which “customer” data of the this nature, finds its way into third party organizations’ hands, for example, for “marketing” purposes. Who hasn’t encountered epiphanies – pleasant or otherwise – in all probability as a result of the transfer of metadata into the hands of organizations that many individuals would really rather not entrust with such inherently private information unless specifically authorised? Do others, apart from Ed Snowden and myself, have the sense that the incidence of epiphanies per week has grown markedly in parallel with advances in technology that have occurred during the information age?

    It was difficult not to feel animus towards the forces and law and order for having effectively discounted and not acted upon the, now proven, allegations about voicemail hacking within the UK press for apparently such a long time. Perhaps we should enlist GCHQ’s expertise in the task of systematically preserving the privacy of John Q. Public from unauthorised users (and abusers) of burgeoning information gathering technologies.

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