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UK government releases justification for spying on UK citizens

As British citizens, we've been taught to take some things for granted. We don't make eye contact on public transport. Our football teams always get knocked out of the World Cup. And our government, except in very extreme circumstances, doesn't spy on our communications.

Over the last few days, at least one of those assumptions has taken a bit of a beating.

Charles Farr, the director general of the Office for Security and Counter Terrorism, has written a response to a legal challenge brought against the UK government for the role played by the British Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in the PRISM scandal revealed by Edward Snowden.

In this document, Farr details exactly why the government finds spying on its own citizens acceptable.

Related: The year the NSA hacked the world: A 2013 PRISM timeline

For most of the 21st Century, snooping in the UK, by the police or otherwise, is covered by the stringent Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) 2000, which regulates the powers of public bodies to carry out surveillance and investigation, and covers the interception of communications.

Despite a number of incidents in which RIPA-approved surveillance was used to monitor which catchment area a schoolchildren lived in, and catch underage smokers, it's a pretty solid bulwark against unregulated spying, and a number of prosecutions have been handed down for surveillance overstretch. For instance in 2007, a former Metropolitan Police officer, Jeremy Young, was jailed for 27 months for various offences including six counts of conspiracy to intercept communications unlawfully.

But it turns out the RIPA might already be outdated when it comes to our modern connected world. According to Farr, UK spy agencies are allowed to tap your communications if the exchange takes place via a service that's run from outside of the country – because then it becomes an external intelligence matter. Since very few large Internet services (such as Google, Skype, Facebook, Yahoo etc.) are based in the UK, this essentially means just about everything is fair game for spying, even if a communication is taking place between two British citizens.

Farr justifies this by claiming that "the nature of the terrorist threat has also been affected by technological developments". Farr argues that without the interception of external communications, "the probability of obtaining any or any adequate intelligence about individuals and organisations operating outside the British Islands would be greatly reduced."

Eric King, Deputy Director of Privacy International said about the revelation: "Intelligence agencies cannot be considered accountable to Parliament and to the public they serve when their actions are obfuscated through secret interpretations of byzantine laws."

Read more: GCHQ shocked by "intimate bodyparts" while spying on millions of webcams

Moreover, he said, "the suggestion that violations of the right to privacy are meaningless if the violator subsequently forgets about it [a comment made by Farr in the legal filing] not only offends the fundamental, inalienable nature of human rights, but patronises the British people, who will not accept such a meagre excuse for the loss of their civil liberties."

Michael Boschenek, Senior Director of International Law and Policy at Amnesty International added: "The public should demand an end to this wholesale violation of their right to privacy."

Farr's response has come as an unprecedented lawsuit is being brought against the British government by privacy pressure groups including Amnesty International, Privacy International, Liberty and Bytes for All, and marks just how far our surveillance laws have failed to protect the public from the spy agencies they fund.

The case will be brought before the Investigatory Powers Tribunal in July.

In May, a separate lawsuit was brought against the GCHQ by Privacy International, accusing GCHQ of infecting "potentially millions" of computers and smartphones around the world with malicious software, that could be used to do anything from extracting photos and text messages, switching on the phone's microphone or camera, or tracking locations or listening in to calls.