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GCHQ in hot water again over illegal computer hacking

Court documents released during a court case brought by Privacy International show that GCHQ - the UK version of the NSA - has engaged in "persistent" illegal hacking. The targets of the intelligence agency's surveillance include computers and phones around the world without the need for individual warrants.

There is concern about the use of "thematic warrants" which allow GCHQ to hack computers with very little justification or oversight, and with very broad remits. Privacy International is involved because there are clear privacy issues involved in GCHQ's activities, and it is seen as being of greater importance than ever with renewed interest in the Investigatory Powers Bill (opens in new tab).

GCHQ's ability to hack and remotely control smartphones was recently revealed by Edward Snowden (opens in new tab), and it is this that gives cause for concern when it comes to privacy. The intelligence agency does not deny that it engages in such activity; in fact, the agency has admitted as much in the course of the court case.

What has attracted particular attention, however, is the existence of "persistent" surveillance operations. Unlike one-off hacks and taps, these on-going hacks see spyware, malware and other spying tools left running on target dsevices indefinitely. Privacy International, in conjunction with seven internet and communications providers, brought the case against GCHQ, and the group's legal representative, Ben Jaffey, said: "Given the high potential level of intrusiveness, including over large numbers of innocent persons, there are inadequate safeguards and limitations."

Caroline Wilson Palow (opens in new tab), General Counsel at Privacy International said: "Eighteen months after we first brought this challenge, GCHQ have come to court today to defend their asserted power to hack computers in the UK without individual warrants. The light touch authorisation and oversight regime that GCHQ has been enjoying should never have been permitted.

"Perhaps it wouldn't have been if Parliament had been notified in the first place that GCHQ was hacking. We hope the tribunal will stand up for our rights and reign in GCHQ's unlawful spying."

The court case continues.