Phone tapping in the UK

Lawyer Graham Shear:

Lawyer Graham Shear: "If a prime minister's or a politician's telephones, or mobile phones were being intercepted, that is more a matter of national security"

LONDON - In a country where phone-hacking has recently come to light, and where leaks from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed the mass collection of data by UK listening post GCHQ, a senior British lawyer has told the Anadolu Agency that some eavesdropping falls under "national security which imposes much greater sentences and potentially, at its furthest example, [wiretapping] is an act, potentially, of treason". 

Berwin Leighton Paisner partner and media lawyer Graham Shear, who was involved in the News of the World phone-hacking scandal, stated that wiretapping a prime minister's phone was far more serious than celebrity eavesdropping, adding that there are a range of laws which the state could use.

Speaking to the AA in London, Shear drew attention to technological developments, adding that while it was easy to monitor communications such interceptions remained a criminal offense.

Shear underscored the legal implications of intercepting a phone conversation illegally, saying: "If you intercept a telephone conversation unlawfully, whether it is on a public telephone line or on a private line, for example, or my phone potentially, there is a two-year prison sentence and I believe it’s now currently up to GBP50,000 for that unlawful interception to voice communication."

He added that if a prime minister's or a politician’s telephones, or mobile phones, were being intercepted then that was more a matter of national security: "As I said, there are a range of other acts related to national security which impose much greater sentences and potentially, at its furthest example, [wiretapping] is an act, potentially, of treason."

Shear also highlighted that it was possible to delete information which had been published on the Internet, but added that it was a complicated area, considering which format or which platform was being used and whether or not that platform was within domestic jurisdiction.

Shear added that getting content removed from the internet would be a legal process. "However, as soon as the information enters the public domain, what we find is that it becomes viral quickly. It begins to move away from its original source, between it being private, highly confidential and moving onto a platform. And then it can be transmitted on many other platforms extremely quickly.

“Getting it removed from all of them is often quite difficult, or to get the various jurisdictions to enforce against them can be difficult before that information in the hands of general public. Once the information enters the public domain you are fighting a very difficult battle," he said.

Tapping a phone is not very difficult, was the answer from Dr Mark Manulis, associate professor (senior lecturer) at the Department of Computing of the University of Surrey when asked if it would be possible to intercept British Prime Minister David Cameron's phone.

Dr Manulis said that politicians and heads of states' phones were harder to tap, adding: "People from government use special phones, so they have been designed with a high level of protection. However, if the phone supports all the standards like that could be broken so of course it is possible to conduct a wiretap on those phones. The politicians have phones have a higher level of security in comparison to regular phones that are used by normal people."

The equipment needed to tap phones is usually in the hands of intelligence services: "You need the technical equipment to do that [tap phones]; this equipment costs money but is possible to build. Obviously, the intelligence agencies have the ability to build such equipment which would allow them to capture data and process it, possibly in real time," Dr Manulis told the AA.

- Breach of right to privacy

Howard Lane of GreenNet, a not-for-profit ethical collective Internet Service Provider, said: "As you can see the mass surveillance carried out by one of the British intelligence agencies, GCHQ, and exposed by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, which the government claim is 'legal' and justified, many people and civil society organizations believe is illegal by being in breach of Article 8 (right to privacy) and Article 10 (right to freedom of expression) of the 1988 Human Rights Act."

Lane stressed the importance of legal process: "In the case of libel, again the person should use the legal process if they claim what is said is untrue and is damaging to their reputation and/or causing financial loss. A court would order the information to be removed, and the Internet company would take it offline or they could defend it if they believed it was true or 'fair comment'."

Lane added that it would certainly be possible for the security forces to tap government officials' phones and asked: "But why would they do this? Unless there was someone in the government suspected of being a security risk."

Although Google (the owners of YouTube) Twitter or Facebook are transnationals, Lane said that it is likely that these companies would co-operate if the security forces requested them to remove material that was alleged to be damaging to "national security." He added: "If not it is conceivable that the security forces could block websites, but given the widespread public usage of social media sites, that would cause an outcry and public criticism that the government was trying to censor the Internet."

He said that such a situation was highly unlikely to occur in Britain adding: "More likely is a court order to remove information that was claimed to be defamatory, damaging or against national security. Also it is very difficult to control it once the information is out there on the Internet."

In the UK, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 also prevents the existence of warrants being revealed in court. However, the act does not mention the monitoring of politicians except if the communications are on the grounds of national security, for the purposes of preventing or detecting crime, preventing disorder, public safety, protecting public health, or in the interests of the economic well-being of the United Kingdom – then a warrant would have to be issued by the secretary of state, which would make it very unlikely that a senior politician could be monitored within the state apparatus.

Owned by the Australian media mogul, Rupert Murdoch, some former editors of the News of the World are on trial on charges, including conspiracy to illegally intercept voicemails from mobiles.

Various other revelations about phone-hacking at the News of the World in 2011 created public anger. The paper was closed amid a growing scandal and the questioning of ex-News of the World staff kicked off last October.

The phone hacking scandal led to the Leveson Inquiry which looked into the culture, practices and ethics of the British press. The scandal received international attention and saw politicians, police and celebrities give evidence.

The UK has had previous instances of leaked conversations from intercepted communications. In the 1990s there was a series of embarrassing leaked conversations published in national papers involving members of the Royal family. A Canadian agent also alleged that he had spied on two British cabinet members in 1983 for the then prime minister, Margaret Thatcher.

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