TIME United Kingdom

UK Says Google, Twitter, Facebook Snooping Permitted By Law

The UK says citizens' communications on U.S.-based social media count as international communications, making them up for grabs for mass surveillance

The United Kingdom has for the first time officially acknowledged that it conducts mass surveillance on its citizens via Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Google. The admission came via a document made public Tuesday after a legal challenge of such surveillance.

Charles Farr, the Director of the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism at the UK’s Home Office, outlined in a 48-page document the legal justifications for the interception of UK residents’ online communications. According to the document, that justification is based on location: Facebook, Twitter, Google and so on are based outside of the UK, so by its reasoning, all British citizens’ use of those platforms constitutes an international communication, which the government views as a valid target for mass surveillance.

However, the Internet’s structure means that data sent online can often bounce around the world in complete disregard of international boundaries. Thus, privacy advocates argue that nearly all online communications could potentially qualify as international and therefore up for grabs in the eyes of the British government.

“The security services consider that they’re entitled to read, listen and analyze all our communications on Facebook, Google and other U.S.-based platforms,” said the Legal Director of the rights group Liberty in a statement. “If there was any remaining doubt that our snooping laws need a radical overhaul there can be no longer.”

The British government has previously refused to confirm or deny Edward Snowden’s accusations that the UK has been monitoring citizens’ communications en masse. “This is the first time the British government has said, ‘we are performing mass surveillance and we think it’s legal,’” Privacy International spokesman Mike Rispoli told TIME. Privacy International was among the groups that brought the suit leading to the document’s release.

In the document, the British government, like the NSA, argues that mass communications surveillance makes the country safer.

“Overall, intelligence derived from communications and communications data obtained from foreign intelligence partners, and from the U.S. intelligence agencies in particular, has led directly to the prevention of terrorist attacks and serious crime, and the saving of lives,” said the UK in the document released Tuesday. Defenders of the American NSA program have yet to identify a case wherein lives were saved by data gleaned from mass surveillance.

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