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Leaked Snowden Documents Reveal GCHQ Spied On Journalists’ Emails

Tuesday, February 17th, 2015

The British Intelligence agency GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) intercepted emails of journalists working for some of the top media organizations in the world. The intelligence agency collected emails of journalists working for New York Times, BBC, Reuters, The Guardian, Washington Post, The Sun, Le Monde and NBC during one of its data collection drives. The incidence came to light when British newspaper The Guardian analyzed the documents provided by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and decided to publish its findings.

As per the Guardian, emails of the journalists were intercepted way back in 2008 and the whole operation was a part of GCHQ’s fiber optic cable tap exercise. If the media reports are to be believed, more than 70,000 emails from journalists were harvested by the intelligence agency in a matter of 10 minutes. As far as the content of the leaked emails is concerned, a lot of them were mass PR emails sent by a journalist to others but some of them also contain specific discussions regarding a particular news story. After the emails were collected, they were allegedly saved and shared on the intelligence agency’s intranet. The aim of the whole exercise was to test the effectiveness of a new tool that was used to strip irrelevant information from the data collected by the agency.

While it is not clear whether the intelligence agency knowingly targeted any individual journalist or harvested emails from media organizations deliberately, the revelations have once again raised serious questions over the data collection practices of GCHQ. The disclosure also comes at a difficult time for the British government since it was already under pressure from Member of Parliaments, reporters and lawyers who have repeatedly requested it to do more in order to protect their confidential information from snooping and surveillance. And considering that the British Intelligence agency considers journalists a threat and ranks them alongside criminals and terrorists in their hierarchy (another piece of information provided by Snowden), the latest revelations have raised serious doubts about the intentions of GCHQ.

The latest leaks should also be viewed in the context of the campaign launched by senior editors and lawyers protesting the abuse of Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA). As you might be aware, RIPA can be used to snoop upon a journalist’s communications without a warrant. Editors from more than 100 media organizations have urged the David Cameron government to introduce a freedom of expression law that would protect journalists from illegal surveillance and spying.

GCHQ declined to comment on the latest leaks by saying that the agency doesn’t comment on intelligence matters. The official spokesman of the intelligence agency said that GCHQ’s work is in strict accordance with the legal and policy framework of the country which ensures that the agency’s actions are authorized by the government and are overseen by senior government officials, including Secretary of the State. The spokesman further added that the agency’s surveillance policies are totally in line with the European convention on human rights.

February 17, 2015

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