UK government intelligence agencies such as GCHQ are now immune from prosecution for hacking into computers and mobile devices after Parliament quietly amended the law.
The Computer Misuse Act originally came into effect in 1990 and states that gaining unauthorised access to computer material is a criminal offence, punishable by a fine and up to 12 months imprisonment.
However, a key clause in the Act has been re-written and it now allows public sector organisations such as the Police, intelligence agencies and similar bodies immunity from prosecution for hacking.
The Home Office has claimed that the changes do not increase or expand the capability of intelligence agencies to carry out lawful cybercrime investigation, but privacy and human rights campaigners are deeply concerned by the move.
Last year, Privacy International and group of Internet Service Providers began legal action against GCHQ for illegal hacking operations and asserted the agency’s actions were unlawful under the Computer Misuse Act.
This group claims that it was only notified of the changes to the Computer Misuse Act just hours before a hearing with the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, despite the damaging effect such an amendment will have on the legal action.
According to Privacy International, no consultations with the Information Commissioner’s Office, industry, non-governmental organisations or commissioners responsible for overseeing the intelligence agencies were consulted ahead of the Act amendment.
It claims there was no Privacy Impact Assessment published and just the Ministry of Justice, Crown Prosecution Service, Scotland Office, Northern Ireland Office, GCHQ, Police and National Crime Agency were consulted as stakeholders.
“The underhand and undemocratic manner in which the government is seeking to make lawful GCHQ’s hacking operations is disgraceful,” claimed deputy director of Privacy International Eric King.
“Hacking is one of the most intrusive surveillance capabilities available to any intelligence agency, and its use and safeguards surrounding it vailable to any intelligence agency, and its use and safeguards surrounding it should be the subject of a proper debate.
“Instead, the government is continuing to neither confirm nor deny the existence of a capability it is clear they have, while changing the law under the radar, without proper Parliamentary debate,” he added.