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Privacy group takes aim at UK surveillance practices

Privacy International files legal complaint that accuses GCHQ of installing malware on millions of devices without their owners' permission.


An international nonprofit has filed a legal complaint that accuses Britain's electronic surveillance agency of illegally hacking millions of electronic devices without their owners' permission.

The complaint, filed Tuesday by Privacy International, accused the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) of surveillance techniques that were "incompatible with democratic principles and human rights standards." The privacy watchdog accused the GCHQ of installing hacking programs such as Nosey Smurf, Tracker Smurf, and Foggybottom on computers, mobile phones, and webcams to secretly record communications and capture other sensitive information such as usernames, passwords, emails, and text messages.

"In allowing GCHQ to extract a huge amount of information (current and historical), much of which an individual may never have chosen to share with anybody, and to turn a user's own devices against him by coopting them as instruments of video and audio surveillance, it is at least as intrusive as searching a person's house and installing bugs so as to enable continued monitoring," the complaint states. "In fact, it is more intrusive, because of the amount of information now generated and stored by computers and mobile devices nowadays, the speed, ease and surreptitiousness with which surveillance can be conducted, and because it allows the ongoing surveillance to continue wherever the affected person may be."

The complaint follows a report in March on the development of NSA surveillance technology designed to infect millions of computers with malware "implants" that could siphon data from targeted devices. Based on documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, The Intercept connected the GCHQ with the technology's development.

In its 21-page complaint, the UK-based watchdog Privacy International claims the techniques allegedly used by the UK's counterpart to the NSA violate European human rights law and requested that the alleged practice be stopped.

"The hacking programs being undertaken by G.C.H.Q. are the modern equivalent of the government entering your house, rummaging through your filing cabinets, diaries, journals and correspondence, before planting bugs in every room you enter," Eric King, Privacy International's deputy director, said in a statement.

The GCHQ declined to comment on the complaint or its intelligence-gathering activities, but a spokesperson said that "all of GCHQ's work is carried out in accordance with a strict legal and policy framework which ensures that our activities are authorised, necessary and proportionate, and that there is rigorous oversight, including from the Secretary of State, the Interception and Intelligence Services Commissioners and the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee. All our operational processes rigorously support this position."

The complaint is based on information contained in confidential NSA documents released last year by Snowden that detailed widespread collection of smartphone data by the NSA and GCHQ. The NSA was also accused of hacking phones to eavesdrop on dozens of world leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Updated 5/14 at 11:50 a.m. PT with GCHQ comment.