Because Google and Facebook are foreign companies located outside the United Kingdom, British spy agencies say they do not need a warrant to tap into and track individual communications.
The revelation has left many frustrated and angry that the UK appears to be following the lead of the United States' National Security Agency in surveillance tactics that have caused a global uproar over privacy and government intrusion into the daily lives of citizens.
British spy boss Charles Farr has issued a statement on the surveillance of external communications. While much of the information he did not reveal as a result of it being classified, he did claim that his agency was upholding and maintaining its position vis-à-vis terrorist-related threats.
"The governments of democratic states are charged with the duty of upholding the criminal law and protecting their citizens from threats such as organized crime and terrorism," he said in a statement.
"The UK has for many years faced a serious threat from terrorism. The threat in the UK from international terrorism in particular is currently assessed by the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre ("JTAC") to be "Substantial," which means that an attack is assessed to be a strong possibility," he argued in defending the surveillance program. Farr is director general of the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism, part of the Home Office.
Privacy International, the global campaign group that is fighting legal battles in the UK over surveillance, has said that it believes the interpretation of the law to allow the surveillance "patronizes the British people."
This is the first time that the UK has publicly commented on surveillance and defended it since American whistleblower Edward Snowden brought the world's attention to the massive spying apparatus the NSA undertakes daily.
Farr told Privacy International that his Office of Security and Counter-Terrorism has been using Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and web searches and emails from Google, Hotmail and Yahoo to track individuals across the country.
Under British law, surveillance is technically only allowed after obtaining a warrant, but Farr's office is using a loophole that allows the surveillance of individuals without a warrant based on their use of foreign companies such as Google (Gmail), Twitter and Facebook, all of which are based in California.
It again highlights the growing global concern over privacy rights and throws into question the role of the UK government in infringing upon what PI and other groups say is a direct violation of an individuals' right to privacy.