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GCHQ backlash? Anonymous website shut down following privacy rights protest

Published time: September 02, 2014 19:57
Edited time: September 03, 2014 06:02
Following a privacy rights protest outside GCHQ's headquaters, Anonymous UK's site has been taken down. (Reuters / Wolfgang Rattay)

Following a privacy rights protest outside GCHQ's headquaters, Anonymous UK's site has been taken down. (Reuters / Wolfgang Rattay)

Anonymous UK’s website was recently targeted and taken down in the midst of a four-day privacy rights protest organized by the collective. The demonstration was held outside Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ).

A spokesman for the hacktivist group believes the targeted attack was carried out by GCHQ officials.

The protest, which began outside Britain’s Cheltenham-based spy base last Friday, was launched to highlight the erosion of Britons’ privacy rights against a backdrop of increasing mass surveillance. But prior to the main day of protest scheduled for Saturday, Anonymous UK’s website was taken down. The incident occurred late Friday evening.

This is not the first time the group's communications platforms have been shut down. A spokesman for the hacktivist collective, who runs its online radio station, insists Anonymous UK has been unjustly targeted by GCHQ on several occasions. “One of our servers was destroyed and our UK radio station has been shut down,” he told RT on Friday, adding that the group's site was also targeted following the launch of a campaign to feed homeless people.

Commenting on the cyber attack, the spokesman said if a member of the public targeted a government site in this manner, they could "get up to five years in prison the UK." Yet “GHHQ has no one to answer to.”

“This is why we protest,” he stressed.

Although GCHQ allegedly attempted to liaise with Anonymous UK in advance of the demonstration, a spokesperson for the hacktivist collective said the group declined to respond. Anonymous UK insisted privacy rights advocates have a democratic right to protest peacefully, and shouldn't have to justify their desire to do so to UK authorities.

Probed as to whether Anonymous UK plans to issue a formal complaint about the targeting of its website, a spokesman for the group said “we can’t complain to anyone” because “GCHQ would just deny it.”

An aerial image of the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire. (Image from www.defenceimagery.mod.uk)

An official GCHQ spokeswoman told RT on Tuesday the body "functioned normally" during the protest, "getting on with the important work" Parliament has requested it carry out "to protect national security." While she neither confirmed nor denied whether GCHQ had targeted Anonymous UK's website, the spokeswoman insisted the organization "fully respects the right of people to protest peacefully within the law."

Central to Anonymous UK's privacy concerns is an alleged UK intelligence operation called Tempora. Covert documents sent to the Guardian by US whistleblower Edward Snowden state the program facilitates British intelligence officers’ access to private data. Such information relates specifically to email, social networking, and telephone conversations.

Britain’s Investigatory Powers Tribunal is currently seeking to discern whether Tempora exists, and if it violates Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights – which deals with citizens’ right to privacy. A final judgment on the case is yet to emerge. Following a five day hearing in July, a group of high profile UK and international civil liberties groups that launched the proceedings are still awaiting an outcome. But Anonymous UK is doubtful the final judgement will favor the public’s right to privacy.

According to the hacktivist collective, approximately 60 protesters attended the demonstration over the weekend in a bid to raise awareness about the intrusive nature of GCHQ mass surveillance. Others estimate the number of attendees was more moderate. Anonymous UK claim all activists demonstrated in a peaceful and lawful manner, and there were no arrests. Nevertheless, its site remains inaccessible to visitors.

In response to the allegation that GCHQ was responsible for the shut down of Anonymous UK's site, a spokeswoman for the Cheltnam-based listening post said "all of GCHQ's work is carried out in accordance with a strict legal and policy framework, which ensures that our activities are authorised, necessary and proportionate."

Each and every GCHQ operation is characterized by "rigorous oversight" from "the Secretary of State, the Interception of Communications and Intelligence Services Commissioners and the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee", she added.

But Anonymous UK's primary technical expert said the "IP hijack" was carried out by GCHQ because the precise nature of the cyber-attack was indicative of their tactics. "The fact this happened on the same day as the protest seems very coincidental", he added.

On the question of why GCHQ would conduct such a digital assault, he suggested it may have been a "tit for tat response" to Anonymous UK's ongoing privacy rights activism or an effort to "stifle" the group's communications in light of inconvenience caused by the weekend's protest. He said he wasn't aware of other global Anonymous sites being hacked by government bodies.

Anonymous UK is a subset of a nebulous international network of activists and hacktvists known for politically charged, subversive maneuvers worldwide. Recent actions carried out by the broader Anonymous movement include efforts to tackle global inequality, operations to counter government attacks on citizens’ privacy rights, efforts to mitigate child pornography, and a “cyber assault” against Israel to counter IDF operations in Gaza.

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