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NSA/GCHQ Tool Watches the Watchmen? Not Really

By Jonathan R. Tung, Esq. on October 08, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

2015 has been a good year for online privacy advocates -- kind of. Earlier this year, the Investigatory Power Tribunal in the UK ruled that British Intelligence Services (unfortunately not the same as M16) overstepped their legal authority when they accessed the private communications of millions that had been swept and collected under NSA's mass surveillance programs PRISM and Upstream. By the way, they're hiring.

The victory is a major feather in Privacy International's cap, a British civil liberties group. The efforts of the group resulted in the aptly named "Did the GCHQ Illegally Spy on You" online tool, which allows users to find out (within boundaries) whether or not the nefarious Government Communications Headquarters group -- Britain's CIA/NSA -- listened in on their private conversations.

The Catches

Of course there are going to be catches. Here is a list that the netizens have been able to compile.

1. The IPT will only search for records shared between NSA and GCHQ prior to 2014.

Unfortunately, no tool is yet available to check whether or not the NSA and GCHQ are spying on you currently. Either the law does not grant the ITB that power, or the technology is not yet available for such a search. Or both. Additionally, the check will not tell you whether it was the NSA who shared your data (if any) with GCHQ or vice versa.

2. IPT will "usually only" search for GCHQ for years "before the claim was submitted."

Yeah, I had trouble with that one too. What this basically means is that the current 2015 year is out completely. This was covered by caveat number 1, above. But this means that if you did happen to file a claim with the IPT on October 4, 2015, the engine will only search records from October 4, 2014 to December of 2014, thereby following both rules above.

3. You have to give up your private information -- AGAIN.

As if this couldn't get better, claimants have to list out a battery of very private information in order for IPT to investigate GCHQ's records. Apparently, there are safeguards that protect applicants: GCHQ must delete the information that the IPT collected on you and also delete your complaint.

Facing Reality

If you're beginning to feel that this check up tool isn't all that it's cracked up to be, you're not alone. As it is now, the features don't live up to the hype. Since the tool has only been up for several months, this means that in order for one to stay within the boundaries of the rules, one would have had to put up a complaint immediately once the tool went up. This is because complainants run into the December 2014 wall.

With each additional tick of the clock, anyone who chooses to use the tool this year will only be guaranteed a check of two months and change ... of 2014. This means that NSA could have been checking up on you for the entire 2015 and you'd never know it -- until 2016.

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