UK Police Spy On Journalists At Small Town Paper, Gather One Million Minutes Worth Of Call Data

from the just-a-tiny,-long-running-abuse-of-the-system dept

The UK's top spy agencies have been known to place journalists under surveillance. Leaked Snowden documents showed GCHQ collected emails from news organizations such as the New York Times, BBC, and Washington Post. More accusations of spying were raised by UK journalists, detailing what appeared to be a clear abuse of the country's anti-terror laws -- laws particularly prone to exploitation thanks to generous loopholes and a minimum of oversight.

It wasn't just spy agencies doing the spying. In the case of the UK journalists, it was also local law enforcement digging through their emails and phone calls in hopes of identifying sources and leakers. More evidence of police surveillance of journalists has come to light, as reported by the Associated Press. Once again, it's law enforcement looking to uncover sources and whistleblowers, rather than terrorists or criminals.

British journalist Julia Breen's scoop about racism at her local police force didn't just get her on the front page, it got her put under surveillance.

In the months that followed Breen's exclusive, investigators logged her calls, those of her colleague Graeme Hetherington and even their modest-sized newspaper's busy switchboard in an effort to unmask their sources. The two were stunned when they eventually discovered the scale of the spying.

"It just never even crossed our minds," Breen said in a recent interview in the newsroom of The Northern Echo, in the English market town of Darlington. "I don't know if I was quite naive, but on a regional newspaper you don't expect your local police force to do this."

Mark Dias, a Cleveland Police officer, came forward and admitted he was the source for Breen's story, but that didn't stop the department from obtaining three days worth of calls to the paper's switchboard, along with logs of calls to and from three of the journalists who worked for the paper.

Once the police were tapped in, they just kept collecting call records.

Although none of the seized records included the content of the individuals' conversations, collectively the length, timing and nature of hundreds of phone calls can be extraordinarily revealing. It was later calculated that the surveillance covered over 1 million minutes of calling time.

And for what? The whistleblower the police were interested in had already outed himself. (And placed under investigation by his department.) Anything beyond that point was purely a fishing expedition for new sources/whistleblowers -- presumably in hopes of heading off more negative press. In addition to the journalists and Dias, Cleveland Police gathered information on communications with a police union official, and a lawyer that Dias and the union official were working with.

Since this came to light, the department has apologized to all of its snooping targets. It has also promised to perform an internal review of its last six years of policework to see if other surveillance abuses have taken place. This was more likely prompted by a court decision calling the surveillance unlawful than the department's innate desire to do the right thing. It will be doing it now, but only after being caught doing things it shouldn't have been doing.


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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 10 Feb 2017 @ 8:55pm

    If it was unlawful...

    how many are going to jail?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Roger Strong (profile), 10 Feb 2017 @ 9:38pm

      Re: If it was unlawful...

      As John Oliver said of the NSA's domestic spying, "Look, we're not accusing you of breaking the law. We're just a little creeped out that you didn't have to."

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Belcor, 11 Feb 2017 @ 6:16am

      Laws are 4 the little people

      "law-enforcers" do not face the same criminal justice system as ordinary citizens -- they are above the law in most cases... certainly in the United Kingdom and U.S.

      Extensive formal & de facto police-immunity has been quietly and steadily built in to the practical application of government criminal justice... over many decades.

      Most citizens do not notice this systemic corruption -- they see occasional news reports of police abuses, but falsely assume these are unusual events by a few bad apples.
      The media is overwhelmingly supportive of government and its enforcers... normally celebrating the police and downplaying police criminality.

      However, the media gets annoyed when they are the target of police corruption & abuse -- as is the case with this referenced British/journalists story.

      The MSM never discerns the core problem with government law enforcers.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 10 Feb 2017 @ 9:01pm

    Lager issues

    There seems to be some overlooked, or at least undiscussed, larger issues here.

    you don't expect your local police force to do this.

    The issue I see is why do they even have the capacity to do this, let alone an excuse?

    prompted by a court decision calling the surveillance unlawful

    It it was unlawful, then it was criminal. Show me the orange jump suited police officers serving time in jail for this illegal act.

    crickets chirping

    Yeah, pretty much what I expected.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      K`Tetch (profile), 11 Feb 2017 @ 7:53am

      Re: Lager issues

      "Show me the orange jump suited police officers serving time in jail for this illegal act."

      Big problem with this.
      UK prison outfits are grey sweatshirts and jogging bottoms.

      Makes them look like a slightly overweight middleaged woman trying to jog around her area of ticky-tacky little boxes.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 10 Feb 2017 @ 11:00pm

    Should have cut their losses

    So not only are they racist but also criminal snoppers. But the police feel they are the ones that need more protections. What other behaviors are they hiding?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 11 Feb 2017 @ 4:56am

      Re: Should have cut their losses

      They clearly are hiding all of their illegal activities. Arrest them all and let the courts decide who gets to fill their jobs.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 10 Feb 2017 @ 11:15pm

    If only there were like representatives of the people in the legal system, who would punish those who violate the law.

    It is a pity they have to kowtow to every demand to ignore misconduct or they will screw up other cases moving forward & take other actions to retaliate against them for upholding the law.

    They wonder why so many people have no respect for the law or its cogs that are magically freed from having to follow the law.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 11 Feb 2017 @ 4:35am

    clearly, brits don't have operation mockingbird in place.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    mojone (profile), 11 Feb 2017 @ 5:42am

    And now they are trying get journalists that receive leaked stuff guilty of spying

    theregister - Planned Espionage Act could jail journos and whistleblowers as spies

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 11 Feb 2017 @ 5:45am

    In all fairness, i very much doubt if there is now another mdmber nation of ghose classed S civilised that has such con gemlt fkr its citizens and cares so little for their privacy and freedom, or any other of their righfs, as the UK and its government! But dont forget, its all to keep the children safe from porn and the Nation safe from terrorism,absolutely nothing to do with keeping tabs on everyone and stopping the people from finding out what lying, cheating, self preserving assholes in control! Many tnx, May, many tnx because this shit is all on your head!!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 11 Feb 2017 @ 5:48am

    I vote for jail

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 11 Feb 2017 @ 5:54am

    And here I was worried for a moment

    Since this came to light, the department has apologized to all of its snooping targets. It has also promised to perform an internal review of its last six years of policework to see if other surveillance abuses have taken place. This was more likely prompted by a court decision calling the surveillance unlawful than the department's innate desire to do the right thing. It will be doing it now, but only after being caught doing things it shouldn't have been doing.

    Well now, with the department tasking itself to check to make sure it didn't break the law in other ways consider my concerns put to rest.

    I mean surely no-one is better suited to investigate potential wrong-doing than the very target of the investigation, that's why accused criminals without badges are put in charge of the investigations regarding their actions, who would do a better job?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Cowardly Lion, 13 Feb 2017 @ 3:37am

      Re: And here I was worried for a moment

      In theory, a complaint could be lodged with the UK's Independent Police Complaints Commissioner who can, in serious cases, investigate the complaint independently of the Police Force in question. In reality though, that body is understaffed, underfunded and under powered. There was a recent Parliamentary Inquiry into it's effectiveness that basically gave it an 'F-'.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 12 Feb 2017 @ 10:40am

    "we promise a 25 year long investigation into this TERRIBLE situation"

    "will you stop spying on that newspaper?"

    "fuck no"

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    DannyB (profile), 13 Feb 2017 @ 5:50am

    It is ONLY a mere one million minutes of call data

    That works out to a measly 1.9 years of call data. Since people, most people, aren't continuously on the phone, this probably represents quite a few more real time person-years of call data.

    The police are just being extra careful in case more criminal activity occurs. To protect us all. Can't you imagine horrible threats to our way of life? It's like the potential monster under the bed. You need to wake up the police to come check under the bed and install permanent surveillance. In every bedroom, just in case.

    Somewhere in that 1.9 years of call data, there might have been a call to a terrorist. Of course, to be sure, everyone contacted during that time needs to be investigated, and their contacts as well. Because terrorists.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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