04:37 GMT26 May 2020
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    Documents leaked by former CIA operative Edward Snowden show the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) had access to a program named Milkwhite Enrichment Service (MES) to gather information on people's Internet, phone and social media usage in a revelation that could prove explosive.

    The issue of state snooping is particularly sensitive in Northern Ireland, given the generations-long splits in the community, particularly between Protestants and Catholics, nationalists and unionists. There has long been suspicion that the authorities used mass surveillance to keep tabs on dissidents within Northern Ireland.

    One of the murals near Shankill Road in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
    © Flickr / J McDowell
    One of the murals near Shankill Road in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

    The latest set of documents form the leaks of Snowden, show that the PSNI had access — via the Serious Organized Crime Agency (SOCA), the predecessor of the current National Crime Agency (NCA), to material gathered by the UK Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), using a program known as Milkwhite Enrichment Service (MES).

    According to the leaks, Milkwhite supported "the Home Office Communications Capabilities Directorate (CCD), whose program is tasked with modernising the UK's domestic interception capabilities." The system was used to "improve customer reach", increase "service capacity" and allow for "better productivity of outputs."

    Divided Society

    Although the existence of Milkwhite is not new, its use by the PSNI has called into question the oversight of its use in the context of Northern Ireland. The PSNI replaced the Royal Ulster Constabulary, which had a reputation for collusion with loyalist paramilitaries and for one-sided policing. Although the PSNI has attempted to change that reputation it still has issues policing a divided community.

    Asked by the Irish News whether it had to apply to a judge for permission to snoop on individuals, the PSNI spokesperson said: "It would be inappropriate for policing to become involved in what is clearly a regulatory matter. I therefore suggest that your best course of action is to write to the Interception of Communications Commissioners Office who have oversight of such matters."


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    bulk collection, mass surveillance, snooping, leaked documents, surveillance, Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), British Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), MI6, MI5, Edward Snowden, Northern Ireland, United Kingdom
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