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Former British spy boss says text message collection “lawful”

The former director of the United Kingdom spy agency GCHQ says it is “perfectly lawful” for British intelligence agents to sift through millions of text messages collected by their counterparts at the National Security Agency.

Appearing on Britain’s Channel 4 News, Sir David Omand rejected suggestions that GCHQ agents circumvented British law by accessing the NSA’s database of millions of text messages sent outside of the United States.

“It is clearly lawful under American law, and in British circumstances where we are entitled to collect metadata, it’s perfectly lawful for us to do that,” Omand said in an interview broadcast Tuesday. “Domestic information — content — requires a Secretary of State’s warrant; metadata, as you know, doesn’t.”

The Guardian newspaper made public the existence of the program, called Dishfire, in a report based on classified documents provided to journalists by former government contractor Edward Snowden.

The documents reveal NSA agents collect “pretty much everything it can” related to text messages sent to and from cell phones, including missed call alerts, financial transactions and “electronic business cards” that contain names, phone numbers and pictures among other data.

According to the Guardian, the NSA collects more than 200 million text messages daily, including 5 million missed call alerts and geolocation data from 76,000 messages.

The documents claim American phone numbers were “minimized,” or removed, from the database, but phone numbers belonging to British subscribers and those in other countries were left intact.

British agents, who had access to the NSA database, were not allowed to search the contents of a text message without a warrant; however, the documents published by the Guardian say GCHQ lawyers “decided analysts were able to see who UK phone numbers had been texting, and search for them in the database.”

The revelation stoked debate over whether or not GCHQ agents had intrusive — perhaps unlawful — access to the daily goings-on of ordinary, law-abiding British citizens. For Vodafone, one of Britain’s largest telecommunications providers, the Dishfire program is deeply troubling.

“From our perspective, the law is there to protect our customers and it doesn’t sound as if that is what is necessarily happening,” a Vodafone spokesperson told Channel 4 News.

Omand said that perspectives “paranoia” brought upon by media misinformation about the spy programs.

“You inadvertently, I hope, are making it all worse by creating the impression that this mass surveillance is going on…that there are rooms full of people monitoring the population,” Omand said. “There aren’t.”

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About the Author:

Matthew Keys

Matthew Keys is a nationally-recognized, award-winning journalist who has covered the business of media, technology, radio and television for more than 11 years. He is the publisher of The Desk and contributes to Know Techie, Digital Content Next and StreamTV Insider. He previously worked for Thomson Reuters, the Walt Disney Company, McNaughton Newspapers and Tribune Broadcasting.
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