Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
  2. The Staggers
21 April 2016

Spies invaded privacy to send birthday cards, new documents show

Intelligence services also admit they collect personal data on people "unlikely to be of interest" to national security. 

By Barbara Speed

tranche of internal documents obtained from UK intelligence services sheds light on their bulk collection of our data – and also reveals that spies have accessed databases of this private information in order to tend to personal business. 

The documents from GCHQ, MI5, and MI6 cover the past 15 years and were obtained by privacy campaign group Privacy International as part of a legal challenge against the government’s surveillance tactics. They show that security services regularly requisition information on individuals from banks, doctors, and other public and private institutions. This includes information on hair colour, blood type, medical history, petitions they had signed, and correspondence with lawyers.

These “Bulk Personal Datasets” are used to monitor individuals who may be a threat to the country’s national security, but, according to the agencies themselves, “the majority of [these people] are unlikely to be of intelligence or security interest”.

One memo in particular, sent by the Secret Intelligence Agency in 2011, also reveals spies’ lax attitudes to the handling of personal data. It notes that employees have “look[ed] up addresses in order to send birthday cards” in intelligence databases, checked passport details, and “check[ed] details of family members for personal convenience”. 

The memo goes on to note that each search “has the potential to invade the privacy of individuals, including individuals who are not the main subject of your search”.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

Millie Graham Wood, the Legal Officer at Privacy International, called the data profiles built up around individuals “staggering”:

Content from our partners
How do we secure the hybrid office?
How materials innovation can help achieve net zero and level-up the UK
Fantastic mental well-being strategies and where to find them

This data is integrated into databases that could be used to build detailed profiles about all of us. The agencies themselves admit that the majority of data collected relates to individuals who are not a threat to national security or suspected of a crime. This highly sensitive information about us is vulnerable to attack from hackers, foreign governments, and criminals. 

She added that agencies have been carrying out this type of surveillance for 15 years, and are now seeking to back-legitimise it through the Investigatory Powers Bill, or “Snooper’s Charter“. The bill is currently at committee stage in the Commons. 

You can see the full set of documents here. You can sign Privacy International’s petition against new police snooping powers here