THE BLOG

Surveillance = Killing

06/11/2014 10:26 GMT | Updated 05/01/2015 10:59 GMT

Did you know that BT has a code name in the international spy community?

This ubiquitous British company that provides your flat with phone and Internet services has an alter-ego named REMEDY. Under this code name, BT has worked closely with UK and US intelligence to tap the communications cables that run through Britain, and to give access to customers' private data.

While BT has never discussed its role, the company has been named as one of the "two top earners of secret GCHQ payments running into tens of millions of pounds annually". In fact, the wiretapping is so frequent that BT keeps squads of employees embedded inside GCHQ. These "Sensitive Relationship Teams" install the software and probes that funnel most of the world's phone calls and internet data to the GCHQ headquarters in Cheltenham.

Each day, 25% of global internet traffic passes through Britain, and BT's lucrative assistance allows the UK and US governments to monitor up to 90% of it. GCHQ can already drive trucks through the loopholes in the UK privacy protection laws, even if Robert Hannigan, the agency's new director, wants to scare us into revealing even more.

The thought of intelligence agents rummaging through our Facebook and email activity may be unsettling for us in Britain, but the same sort of mass surveillance results in mutilation or death in countries like Yemen, Somalia, or Pakistan.

In February 2014, a former US drone operator revealed people were targeted for lethal drone strikes based simply on their mobile phone activity and location. Government-sanctioned murder is regularly approved based on metadata, which simply refers to how people communicate rather than what they communicate. In other words, while governments have made reassuring noises that nobody is listening to your telephone calls or reading your emails, Big Brother has been collecting vast amounts of data about when, where, and to whom we've been talking.

"We kill based on metadata," admitted General Michael Hayden, the former head of the NSA. What he refers to is the ability of intelligence agencies to feed a suspect's phone number into a computer, and to receive within seconds an expansive network of the person's friends and acquaintances. When combined with social media, the intelligence agencies think that this information paints an accurate picture of the target's beliefs.

Such profiling is extremely unreliable, yet it has been used as the basis to send drones to murder hundreds of people. Hellfire missiles are fired not at people but often at whoever is holding the targeted phone at the time. The US simply hopes the person with the SIM card is a terrorist who only associates with other terrorists. As mass surveillance became an essential part of the US drone programme, the NSA even developed a flippant motto: "We Track 'Em, You Whack 'Em".

Tragic mistakes are often made at the cost of many human lives. In the village of Sinhan in Yemen, Salim al-Qawli was a taxi driver and he occasionally drove around with his cousin Ali, who worked as school teacher. On 23 January 2013, Salim and Ali picked up two paying customers, and when they stopped at a military checkpoint, a US drone attacked the vehicle. The two taxi passengers had likely been identified as militants and deemed worthy of death by the US government.

"We had to go to a nearby village to get water to put the fire out," Salim's brother Mohammed al-Qawli remembers. He spent the next several hours trying to collect his relatives' body parts. "The memory remains etched in my mind and haunts me to this day."

Initial reporting claimed the four charred corpses in the taxi wreckage were suspected Al-Qaeda militants, but an official investigation by the Yemeni government determined Salim al-Qawli and Ali al-Qawli "were not suspected of any crime nor linked to any terror organisation".

Drone strikes in non-war zones fan the flames of extremism and anti-West sentiment around the world. By providing access to the vast amounts of data routing through Britain, BT facilitates these unlawful and misguided murders. Yet it continues to bury its head in the sand.

The telecoms giant takes the view that they "cannot be held responsible, nor can [they] know, nor can [they] seek to know, the purpose for which people use [their] telecommunications equipment". BT wants the British public and the world to believe that while it gives away our data to intelligence agencies, the company keeps its eyes closed to what is done with the information.

Reprieve recently filed a complaint with the UK government regarding BT's role in facilitating surveillance that leads to killing. BT has persistently refused to come clean on its collaboration with intelligence agencies.

We can only hope that the UK government can get from BT the answers we deserve.