The admission is contained in documents released by Privacy International, which claims the British spy agencies MI5, MI6 and GCHQ say they are legally justified to hack anyone, anywhere in the world, even if the target is not a threat to national security nor suspected of any crime.
Buried deep within the document, Government lawyers claim that while the intelligence services require authorisation to hack into the computer and mobile phones of "intelligence targets", GCHQ is equally permitted to break into computers anywhere in the world even if they are not connected to a crime or a threat to national security.
Broad Brush with the Law
Normally, permission to hack into communications has to be given under strict rules by the Secretary of State, under UK laws which control what can be tapped on British soil. However, privacy campaigners say — based on Snowden's revelations — tapping communications systems outside of the British Isles is not covered under UK law.
The document — an open response by GCHQ to two cases before the Investigatory Powers Tribunal — states: "Where an authorisation relating to a broader class of operations has been given by the Secretary of State under section 7, internal approval to conduct operations under that authorisation in respect of equipment interference must be sought from a designated senior official."
Thus, once the Secretary of State has given permission for a "broader class of operations", then further actions can be carried out with lower authority with the intelligence services.
Eric King, Deputy Director of Privacy International, said:
"The Government has been deep in the hacking business for nearly a decade, yet they have never once been held accountable for their actions. They have granted themselves incredible powers to break into the devices we hold near and dear, the phones and computers that are so integral to our lives."
"What's worse is that without any legitimate legal justification, they think they have the authority to target anyone they wish, no matter if they are suspected of a crime. This suspicionless hacking must come to an end and the activities of our intelligence agencies must be brought under the rule of law," said King.