Photographer: Jason Alden/Bloomberg

U.K. Spies Turn Your Cell Phone Into a Bug in Tech War on Terror

  • GCHQ agency sued by Internet companies over computer hacking
  • Government says hacking key to avert Paris-style attacks

British spies fighting Paris-style terror attacks deploy cyber-snooping technology that turns your smartphone into a mobile bug, privacy campaigners warned at a London trial into allegations the U.K. tramples on citizens’ rights.

The hacking technique, described as computer and network exploitation by Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters, is so effective that having a smartphone is akin to "carrying around a bug with you," Ben Jaffey, a lawyer representing an advocacy group and not-for-profit Internet hosting services, said at the start of the privacy trial.

"CNE can achieve results that are at least as intrusive as if the targeted individual were to have his house bugged, his home searched, his communications intercepted and a tracking device fitted to his person," Jaffey said in court documents on behalf of seven companies, including U.K.-based GreenNet Ltd., Seattle-based Riseup Networks and the Chaos Computer Club, a hackers collective.

Governments and courts across the world are grappling with how to balance the right to privacy with the need to protect national security in the wake of Islamist terror attacks such as last month’s bloodbath in Paris that claimed the lives of 130 people. The clamor for curbs on spying gathered pace following leaks by former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.

GCHQ confirmed it carries out CNE operations in the U.K. and abroad to counter the increased threat of a terrorist attack and to protect "its citizens in a digital age." The authorities aren’t involved in any unlawful and indiscriminate mass surveillance, it said in court filings.

"GCHQ and the other intelligence agencies must develop innovative and agile technical capabilities to meet these serious national security challenges,” U.K. government lawyer James Eadie said in court documents. “CNE is one such capability,” he said. "Its importance relative to GCHQ’s overall capabilities has been increasing in recent years and is likely to increase further."

This is the first time Internet hosts have gone to court over government spying, according to Privacy International, an advocacy group set up to protect the public from government surveillance involved in the case.

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