March 12, 2015 | Ed Johnson-Williams

What the ISC missed - ORG's quick take on the ISC report

These are our first impressions on reading the Intelligence and Security Committee's key recommendations in its Privacy and Security Report.

The Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) today released the results of their inquiry into GCHQ's surveillance.

The main recommendation of the report is a new act of Parliament to consolidate the current "complicated" and "piecemeal" legal framework into a single piece of legislation. It is important that the legal framework is clear and comprehensible but it will be more important to constrain the agencies to provide Internet users with greater protection from surveillance.

The report says "the agencies do not seek to circumvent the law" but in leaked documents, the agencies themselves say the UK has a light oversight regime. This suggests that they don't need to circumvent the law because the law is weak.

The report deals with GCHQ's mass surveillance under the term "bulk interception capability". In its assessment, the ISC has tried to minimise the extent and impact of bulk collection. They say that "GCHQ are not reading the emails of everyone in the UK" (our emphasis).

GCHQ analysts may not be physically reading all our emails on their screens but GCHQ is collecting huge amounts of information and getting powerful computers to process and analyse it.

The report perpetuates the problematic approach that our privacy is only intruded when a human looks at the content of our communications. It ignores the invasiveness of profiling using metadata.

The key recommendations focus on communications' content when assessing the impacts of bulk collection on our privacy. The committee only talks of "targeted searches" that GCHQ analysts can do on intercepted communications. But leaked documents from Snowden show that analysts can do very broad searches on metadata such as 'all users of X technology in country Y'.

The ISC says GCHQ only has access to a small fraction of the global Internet infrastructure. They ignore however the fact GCHQ works in close partnership with the NSA and the intelligence agencies of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Sweden and many other countries. This gives GCHQ much greater access than the committee has acknowledged.

The current legal framework allows for the bulk collection of communications of anyone in the UK when they communicate with people abroad. The committee tries to re-assure us that the agencies cannot search that pool of data for individuals in the UK without specific Ministerial authorisation for a named target. There are outstanding questions on this area, such as how GCHQ handles metadata from these communications, and to what extent GCHQ computers analyse this data to discover so-called "unknown threats"

We welcome the calls for increased transparency in the legal framework governing surveillance. But GCHQ's “Neither Confirm Nor Deny” policy must be reduced to what is strictly necessary. We also need transparency regarding GCHQ's collaboration with the NSA and other countries' intelligence agencies.

The report makes no recommendations on how GCHQ's data-sharing with NSA and other allies should be properly regulated. They simply propose to introduce a warrant system and processes for exchanging intelligence reports. But this would not cover the broad range of activities uncovered by Snowden.

The committee makes some recommendations to reform intrusion by the agencies but these fall short of properly regulating GCHQ's cyber offensive capabilities and collaboration. There is also very little mention of the implications of data sharing and the integration of GCHQ and the NSA for the UK's foreign policy.

The ISC has produced some interesting detail, with some practical suggestions but the fundamental issues are not addressed. Nor do they explain why they didn't ask these questions and write this report prior to the Snowden leaks.

We will publish a much fuller analysis of the report once we've had time to read and digest it.

You can read ORG's report on GCHQ's activities here.

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March 10, 2015 | Ed Johnson-Williams

MPs criticise TTIP on corporate courts and lack of transparency

A committee of MPs released a report today on TTIP (the Trans-Atlantic Trade & Investment Partnership) - the trade agreement being negotiated in secret by the EU and the USA. The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee's report focuses on the risks posed to the environment by TTIP.

But they also raise serious concerns about the transparency of the negotiations and ISDS (Investor-State Dispute Settlement) - a measure allowing foreign companies to sue the European Union and/or Member State governments if they pass laws which would negatively affect their future profits.

ORG shares these concerns and has raised them in the past.

On ISDS, the committee flags up that neither the UK Government nor the EU has presented a convincing case for the inclusion of ISDS. They also raise concerns about the chilling effect of ISDS on future legislation.

EU states must retain their 'right to regulate', but a TTIP treaty text that enshrines such a safeguard will be meaningless if the prospect of ISDS litigation produces a chilling effect on future regulation-setting. A compelling case for the inclusion of an ISDS in TTIP has not yet been made, and there are unresolved doubts about how well international arbitration courts would operate. If there is to be an ISDS, the parties will need to agree a robustly framed one which prevents unwarranted litigation, adopting the lessons from the recently negotiated ISDS provisions in the EU/Canada trade treaty, to circumscribe the terms on which litigation could be initiated against policies to improve environmental or health protections. (page 19-20)

Many people are concerned that Governments could be discouraged from passing new legislation due to ISDS. If the Government passed legislation that would impact on a foreign company's profits, it would risk having to pay to defend itself at a tribunal and then paying out compensation if it lost the case. The Department for Business argued in its representation to the committee that there is no cause for concern but the committee's disagreed and concluded that ISDS could produce a chilling effect.

On transparency, the committee is concerned that the secretive nature of the negotations makes it impossible to judge whether the risks to environmental safeguards are being dealt with. This is exactly the same problem that we have with digital rights issues in TTIP. We know that negotiations are happening on our issues but because of the lack of transparency we cannot fully analyse whether the risks to our digital rights are being adequately handled.

TTIP potentially presents risks for environmental safeguards, as we have described in this report, but there is also scope for these to be satisfactorily addressed. That depends on the detail of the deal that is struck. At the current stage in the negotiations there is not the transparency needed to be able to reach a view on whether such risks will be dealt with. EU member states, including the UK, will need to be more closely involved in the negotiations from now on, and engage in turn with environmental groups and agencies, to ensure that environmental issues are adequately considered. The next Government should ensure that the public and the House are given a full and timely opportunity to scrutinise the draft terms of any TTIP settlement before it is a done deal. (page 23)

The committee's sentence at the end of that quote speaks to one of ORG's major concerns. We do not want a situation where the first time we can properly scrutinise a trade agreement negotiated on our behalf is when the terms of the agreement are already locked up. It is undemocratic to decide on important trade measures behind closed doors.

We hope the British Government and the European Commission will take on board the recommendations of this House of Commons report.

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March 05, 2015 | Ruth Coustick-Deal

Digital Rights Matter Day: Coming soon

On Thursday 19th March we're giving our membership and campaign funding one big boost: Take part in #digitalrightsmatter day.

Help us hit 3000 supporters!

Crowd of people waving Join ORG signs

It’s only March but we've already had some great successes:

  • We halted an attempt to re-introduce the Snoopers’ Charter.
    Four Lords tried to insert the next of the discredited Communications Data Bill into a seperate Bill, as a last minute 'ammendment'. We raised awareness of this sneaky abuse of democratic process, with our members writing and calling Lords before the big debate. The amendments have now been withdrawn but we'll keep watch in case they try this again.
  • We opposed a national ID register for Scotland.
    The Scottish government announced plans that would create a national ID register in a little-publicised consultation. We galvanised our supporters to respond, alerted the media and met with MSPs to make sure these plans are not passed without a full political debate.

  • We launched ORG Scotland
    We are hiring a new position to shape the future of ORG's work in Scotland and we've been in Scotland the last few weeks meeting grassroots activists, academics, lawyers and politicians to hear what they want for digital rights in Scotland.

All this shows exactly what we can do when we get the momentum going.

Our campaign for General Election in May, is our most ambitious yet – seeking to engage and inspire the next generation of MPs to commit to defending the Internet. 

So far this year we've had 180 new members join to help kick off our election campaign:

  1. ORG’s ‘Civil Liberties’ Hustings will be going ahead in April in Brighton, Bristol, Cardiff and Manchester. We’ve now got other local groups on board including branches of 38 Degrees and Friends of the Earth.

    The one time that we know that politicians are likely to listen to us is during the run up to a General Election when candidates want to know which issues voters care about. Questioning candidates face to face is more effective than email, social media or letters. So we’re organising political hustings so that we can ask candidates directly for their views on a range of human rights issues. These hustings are not just about digital rights because we think its important for candidates to understand that digital rights are human rights; they are not a fringe issue, and protecting them is vital for our freedom. Stay tuned for confirmed venues and dates in the next few weeks!
  1. ORG are excited to be working with Democracy Club to improve how candidates, campaigners and voters communicate! We're building a website that aggregates questions from organisations and puts them to candidates in batches. You’ll be able to see what parliamentary candidates in your constituencies have said on a wide range of issues - and we also aim to help candidates manage the flood of correspondence landing in their inboxes between now and May.

We're proud of all our supporters and activists have helped us achieve. 

On Thursday 19th March we're giving our membership and campaign funding one big boost: Take part in #digitalrightsmatter day.

We’re asking people to join ORG on March 19th to help us to get 300 new members so far this year, taking us to over 3,000 in total.  For people to take notice, we need to all share it together at once.

Celebrate your membership of ORG and raise awareness of our one-day fundraiser for our campaign work by signing up to our Thunderclap.

Support the Thunderclap


  1. Support our action day via Twitter, Facebook, and other social media, and get the word out to your friends and followers to do the same.
  2. Tell us why our work is relevant to you using #digitalrightsmatter. We’ll tweet & share your stories on the day.
  3. Watch as everyone's messages are simultaneously shared.
  4. Can you help ORG and give out flyers to promote our work? Share at your local hackspace or craftspace or office? Just contact and I'll send you some in the post.
  5. Ask a friend to join

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February 26, 2015 | Jim Killock

GCHQ is damaging businesses and the digital economy – we need your help

Politicians are often deaf to arguments against mass surveillance. They will talk about encryption as if it’s for criminals, and tell people that “if you’ve nothing to hide, you’ve nothing to fear”.

But it is the Internet economy that is at risk, just as much as our civil liberties. Politicians need to know this.

Digital businesses should be fearing for the future. According to the government, GCHQ has apparently done nothing substantially wrong. Hacking into legitimate businesses, stealing data or SIM encryption keys is ok. Owning Belgacom’s networks with GCHQ malware is just targeting terrorists. Who cares if it costs them £12 million to clean up the mess GCHQ has made?

Digital businesses depend on customer trust, including trust of encryption tools, which are used for all kinds of secure transactions. Cloud services need to be trusted as secure, rather than surveillance platforms, or they won’t be used.

But is any of this being heard? On the one hand, the government says that Britain needs to be a digital success story, and promotes projects like “Silicon Roundabout”. On the other, it is undermining the very basics you rely on, like the rule of law, Internet security and customer trust.

The government’s story on digital economy doesn’t make sense. None of the parties seem to be spelling this out. So we need your help. 

We need people in business to help us publicly by explaining in the press, and to key politicians, that GCHQ cannot carry on in this way without seriously damaging the online economy.

If you have experience of this, or simply think politicians are getting this wrong, and are willing to speak up, please let us know.

Email us, send us your telephone number, and we’ll talk with you about how you can help politicians understand the damage they are creating to jobs and the digital economy.

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February 25, 2015 | Ruth Coustick-Deal

CITIZENFOUR: Best documentary of 2014 on tonight

The Oscar and BAFTA winning CITIZENFOUR will be shown on Channel 4 tonight. The film shows the scale of the surveillance undertaken by the intelligence agencies behind our backs, and the story of Edward Snowden.

Flyer promoting CITIZENFOUR

In response to Edward Snowden’s revelations that GCHQ and the NSA were invading the privacy of ordinary citizens through programmes unknown to the public, and to the politicians, ORG joined with Article 19, Big Brother Watch, English PEN, Liberty, and Privacy International to form the Don't Spy on Us coalition.

Today, the Oscar and BAFTA winning documentary CITIZENFOUR will be shown on Channel 4, and we encourage you to watch it and spread the word.

Pre-film live Q&A: 9pm on Twitter. Join the conversation on #CITIZENFOUR with experts from the Don’t Spy On Us campaign and journalist Ewen MacAskill from the Guardian. There is a live-blog on the Q&A with the audience reaction here.

Citizen Four: 11.05pm, Channel Four

Months into the production of CITIZENFOUR, already underway as a surveillance documentary, Edward Snowden contacted Laura to tell her he wished to blow the whistle on the NSA’s programmes. What followed was one of the most remarkable scoops in the history of film-making, an achievement recognised by the Oscar for 'best documentary'. You can read why the Oscar matters here.

We’d really appreciate it if you could help us to spread the word and let people know that the film will be showing on Channel 4 at 23:05 on the 25th February. You can either tweet about it or reach out to people via other social media platforms.

The film really brings home the scale of the surveillance undertaken by the intelligence agencies behind our backs. With just over two months until the General Election, it's important that as many people as possible see the CitizenFour.

Click on the image below to retweet and support the film:

Britdoc Tweet promoting CITIZENFOUR

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February 25, 2015 | Ruth Coustick-Deal

Election funding update: half way there!

On January 10 we launched a new campaign to fund our election work. Today we are 50% of the way there! Read about why we are doing it and how you can help.

We launched our campaign to fund our election work on the 10th January with the goal of 300 new supporters

We're excited to announce we are now 50% of the way towards our goal!



It’s working! We’ve got some real momentum going, and together we can achieve this huge goal.

Our recent launch of ORG Scotland shows the impact becoming a member has: we've just ran our first campaign that focuses on Scotland's laws and government and we're about to hire a Scotland Officer. This  means that we are able to speak to MSPs about privacy, free speech and more. Our members made it happen!

This is why joining matters. Every person who joins works together to build a UK movement for digital rights.

Thank you for sharing the campaign with your friends and getting involved, but there is still a long way to go. Please join if you haven’t already.  

What can we do now?

With 150 new members we can really put the pressure on to make the next Government protect our rights online:

  • We’re now teaming up with Global Justice Now and other NGOs to run hustings for your MP candidates. These events make sure you can ask your candidates tough questions on civil liberties. They’re a great opportunity to get involved directly in ORG’s work and learn more about which candidates will defend your rights. Date announcements are coming soon and we hope you’ll come along.
  • We're creating guides and question cards to the current laws on surveillance so that when a politician rings your doorbell you're empowered to talk comfortably and confidently about these issues.

But with another 150 supporters we can do even more.

  • Build an online tool which tells you where your local candidates stand on privacy and surveillance.
  • Hold briefing meetings with candidates to put digital rights in the minds of new MPs. If we can meet with lots of new politicians it will give us better contact with parliament and help raise digital rights concerns at the very start of their terms.

In this critical election year we need you more than ever, so that all our rights are defended here in the UK.

Can you donate £5/month to support our election campaigning?

We are offering a free copy of Becky Hogge’s A Guide to the Internet for Human Rights Defenders to all who join this month.

Why does our work matter?

Last month there was a sneaky attempt to legalise more powers for the police and security services to track our behaviour. Abusing our democratic process, a group of 4 Lords tried to put the text of the Communications Data Bill into another law, by calling it an ‘amendment’. Only this was 18 pages of clauses containing a Bill that had been dropped after widespread criticism and a damning report.

This kind of behaviour shows how important it is for ORG to monitor parliament, raise awareness and mobilise our supporters to work together to defend our rights.

Unfortunately we don’t always have the capacity to run the campaigns we want to. The Internet is where everything takes place, dating, shopping, social interactions - and we all have a stake in making it a safe space. This is why we are asking for you to take this opportunity to join ORG.

What else can you do?

Please do share, encourage others to join and even sign-up yourself if you haven’t already:

  • Persuade a friend to join ORG and we will give you a free gift.
  • Already a supporter? Tell us why! If you have any blogs or videos about why you support us on these issues we'd love to share them.
  • Get involved with our work.

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February 09, 2015 | Javier Ruiz

Hate speech social media bans may not be the answer

Parliamentary report on antisemitism calls for protection orders used to ban sex offenders from using the internet to be extended to hate crime. But these should be used to prevent serious harm, not as punishment for hate speech in general.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Antisemitism has recently published a major report raising concerns on the rise of attacks on Jewish people in the UK. Some of its recommendations are fairly straightforward, such as funding for securing synagogues, but others may have far reaching consequences:

There is an allowance in the law for banning or blocking individuals from certain aspects of internet communication in relation to sexual offences. Informal feedback we have received from policy experts indicates that this is a potential area of exploration for prosecutors in relation to hate crime. If it can be proven in a detailed way that someone has made a considered and determined view to exploit various online networks to harm and perpetrate hate crimes against others then the accepted principles, rules and restrictions that are relevant to sex offences must surely apply.

We recommend that the Crown Prosecution Service undertakes a review to examine the applicability of prevention orders to hate crime offences and if appropriate, take steps to implement them.

The report refers to Sexual Offences Protection Orders (SOPOs).

These are designed to protect the public or individuals from “serious sexual harm”, which can include psychological harm. They are seen as very serious restrictions and cannot be used to punish general behaviours. Breaching an order can lead to up to 5 years in prison.

A court must administer these orders, which last for a minimum of 5 years; in most cases after sentencing. But police can apply for one if they have cautioned someone and believe there is a further risk. The court should carry out a risk assessment to see that the orders are necessary and proportionate. The court should also ensure that the orders are enforceable.

The antisemitic behaviours reported in media outlets are absolutely hateful, such as the use of a hash tag saying “Hitler was right”. But hateful as they may be, many of these instances of hate speech would appear to lack a demonstrable risk of escalation into specific attacks or even more targeted hate speech. This could make it difficult to justify a “protection order” against future behaviour, even if the offenders were to be sentenced and punished for their previous behaviour. Deterrent punishment should not be substituted by a protection order.

There have been lots of problems with SOPOs, as many have been drafted with excessive and unenforceable terms. Restrictions on internet use have been a particular problem with these orders. Courts have refused to accept that offenders should be prevented from “using the internet other than for work, study or finding employment”, though some courts have made orders asking that offenders keep internet histories for inspection.

From the experience with SOPOs, it is very unclear that using such orders for broad restrictions on social media would be seen as proportionate.

These orders require considerable resources from police and courts both in their imposition and monitoring. Particularly, the resources required for the police to monitor the use of social media by offenders could make them unenforceable.

It is unclear whether bringing in a new type of protection order would be helpful or create more problems down the line. For example, many other types of hate crime would probably have to be covered, not just anti-semitic or anti-muslim attacks.

The freedom of expression group Article 19 has published some useful guidance on how to balance the need to stop incitement to hatred with the protection of free expression, which says that administrative sanctions can have a place in dealing with hate crime.

The CPS Legal Guidance on Disability Hate Crime proposes a broad array of mechanisms, which can include ASBOS and other restriction orders. But we understand these are normally designed to prevent the victimisation of specific individuals, not general comments in social media.

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February 05, 2015 | Ruth Coustick-Deal

The real impact of surveillance

Mass surveillance isn't the security blanket that politicians are holding it up to be. For many people surveillance makes them less safe.

The Government are finally having conversations about surveillance, but unfortunately they are simply framing it as an Us vs Them story, a choice between security and privacy. 

Yet for many people surveillance makes them less safe: it's not the security blanket politicians are holding it up to be. Job-seekers under surveillance can lose income needed to survive if their online activity fails to match up to job search demands. People interested in campaigning hestiate over getting involved with movements for social justice when the police count activism as akin to domestic terrorism.

It’s clear that surveillance affects a broad group of people, with real painful consequences for their lives. We’ve seen journalists being monitored, lawyers having their client confidentiality broken, victims of police misconduct being spied on and environmental campaigns infiltrated. These people are not criminals, and yet when we have a system of mass surveillance, they become targets for increasingly intrusive powers. 

We also know that state surveillance stigmatises certain groups of the population, it targets communities and networks. Innocent people who share similarities with suspects, (similar Skype chat user names, nearby places of worship, physical location) fall under intense scrutiny, like having their private web cam chats examinedMass surveillance disproportionally affects marginalized groups and fosters mistrust.

When ORG defends privacy, we are fighting to protect people from abuses of power that leave them vulnerable.

This is why the steady drip of anti-terror laws that give the police and spies more and more surveillance powers saddens and scares me. Surveillance plays a huge role in shutting people down, attacking those already discriminated against and hurting those who try and change the status quo. 

Will you help us campaign against abuses of power over our security in the general election?

The Government has put more surveillance on the agenda, saying they would try again with the Snoopers' Charter, and weaken online security. But there needs to be a strong voice advocating for our civil liberties, and for a surveillance system that people can hold accountable.

ORG are doing that work now. We do it by bringing our campaigns to the courts where we're got a case challenging surveillance in the European Court of Human Rights and we've intervened in a judicial review of our surveillance laws. We work in Parliament where we have given evidence in committees and met with MPs. We have mobilised our supporters through letter writing, petitions, consultation responses and more, every time the right to privacy is under threat. I'm really proud of how much ORG does, and excited by the commitment of our supporters and members to our work. However, we're up against those who will always keep pushing for more surveillance and more powers at any excuse. 

There is a long history of surveillance being used by governments to stifle social movements. Around the world information obtained through surveillance is being used to arrest and torture human rights defenders. Governments have powerful technology at their fingertips which they use to prevent journalists and campaigners from exposing their abuses. Yet the UK is held up as a role model by these same governments to justify introducing more repressive measures. Countries which are viewed as being more extreme or authoritarian can never clean up while we don’t challenge our own practices.

We all have an opportunity to fix this situation and make a stand for digital rights this election.

Help us make the change. Join ORG today!

Right now we need 300 new members so that we can do so much more this election, and we're nearly half way there. Over 100 people have joined us in the last month. Becoming a member makes a huge difference for us, and it's a huge success that so many people are standing with us against mass surveillance. 

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