You may have heard the saying, “There are no sacred cows on the internet,” meaning, in part, that nothing is a mystery and everything is out in the open to exploration and exploitation. Many people regard their messages between friends on Snapchat and other social media as sacred and private. But in the age of digital surveillance, nothing is sacred, and everyone is watching you.
The case of Aditya Verma, a British student whose Snapchat message was intercepted by UK authorities after a terrorist scare, demonstrates how easy it is for law enforcement to access your private messages.
Verma was on his way to Menorca when his message was intercepted by authorities.
The teen sent a Snapchat to his friends claiming to be a member of the Taliban.
“On my way to blow up the plane (I’m a member of the Taliban),” the message reads.
F-18 fighter jets were deployed to escort the plane from Gatwick to Menorca.
The teen arrived in Spain and was subsequently arrested.
The message was chalked up to a “bad joke” on the teen's behalf, as Spanish authorities didn’t find any evidence of jihadist relations when they screened the teen's phone back in 2022.
In January 2024, the teen was acquitted of the crimes, according to the BBC, stating that he never intended to cause “public distress.”
If he had been found guilty of public disorder, he would have faced a €22,500 fine and a further €95,000 to cover the F-18 fighter jets.
Although disturbing, Verma’s message highlights our troubling reality – living in a world where Big Brother is peeking into your private life.
In light of this incident, we wanted to explore this very real experience and understand what kind of private information law enforcement can intercept.
Cybernews spoke to various experts to understand the legalities of message interception and whether this could happen to anyone.
Could it be you?
Ben Michael, an Attorney at Michael & Associates, explains that law enforcement must obtain a warrant to intercept your private messages.
So they can’t legally access personal conversations whenever they deem fit in the UK.
Yet, these warrants are typically quite simple to obtain, Michael states.
For public posts on social media, these messages are in the public sphere and not protected the same way as private messages.
“Anyone can take a screenshot, save the message, and share it with whomever they want to. This type of digital footprint should be a reminder that data is not truly private,” said Jodi Daniels, Faculty Member at IANS Research said.
While social media apps seem secure and may have features like end-to-end encryption (E2EE) in place to avoid external infiltration, no app is immune to legal interception by law enforcement, Anurag Gurtu, CEO of StrikeReady, said.
Snapchat uses end-to-end encryption for snaps (pictures and videos) but not for messages and chats.
Therefore, it could be simple for law enforcement to intercept a message via Snapchat.
Individuals who use social media “should always assume that any private message you send can and will be intercepted or viewed by law enforcement,” Michael adds.
Could it be you? In theory, Yes.
Much like Verma, we all make uncouth or distasteful jokes around a group of friends now and again.
But broadcasting this on the internet is a very different story.
It’s no secret that your data is tracked when you use applications and internet browsers – albeit for less nefarious purposes.
Regardless, your information is being stored and shared with third parties, some of whom you may never have engaged with.
It would be foolish to think that your private messages are immune to this type of surveillance.
It may be harder to intercept your messages, but it is completely possible.
Law enforcement will use various avenues to access your information if you are a person of interest.
Some advice: don’t make jokes on public or private networks if you don’t want to appear like an enemy of the state.
How do they do it?
There are various ways that law enforcement could access your private information.
These include phone tapping, contacting your communications service provider to gain access to your information, or using mobile phone extraction devices to exfiltrate important information.
These activities usually need a warrant to complete – however – as stated previously, these warrants aren’t hard to come by.
In Verma’s case, the message was intercepted as the Easyjet carrier was flying over French airspace.
This triggered a warning which was picked up by the UK security services.
The teen claims to have used his private network while sending the “joke” message.
However, private networks aren’t immune to interception by law enforcement, as a search warrant would be needed to intercept any communication, Gurtu said.
Yet, even when intercepted, end-to-end encrypted communications are useless to law enforcement as they can’t “read” the messages.
Hence why criminals, including terrorists, will use apps that offer a higher level of data protection.
Is this legal?
In essence, yes. If they have a warrant
Both the police and intelligence services have the power under the Investigatory Powers Act 2016 (IPA) in the UK to lawfully monitor or intercept communications, according to the UK human rights organization, Liberty.
Intrusive surveillance, such as intercepting communications, must be authorized by a senior police officer or the Home Secretary, Liberty states.
However, the grounds for such surveillance are very robust and can only occur in certain cases in the UK:
- Protection/interest of national security
- Preventing or detecting serious crimes
- Protection/interest of the economic well-being of the UK
In Verma’s case, the joke did threaten the protection and interest of national security, hence why his Snapchat message was picked up by the UK security services.
However, Snapchat is an encrypted app – to an extent – as only snaps (pictures and videos) are encrypted, whereas chats and messages aren’t encrypted.
One theory – that has recently been de-bunked – is that the message could have been picked up using Gatwick’s Wi-Fi network.
Yet a spokesperson for the airport told the BBC that the network isn’t capable of such an action.
It’s possible that Snapchat may have provided information in case of an emergency as the platform supports requests “from law enforcement and government agencies, including subpoenas and summons, court orders, search warrants, and emergency disclosure requests.”
Cybernews reached out to Snapchat and is awaiting their response.
“Verma's case raises questions about privacy rights and the extent of surveillance powers, particularly in context to the legality of intercepting private communications,” said Gurtu.
What information can law enforcement access?
From E2EE messaging services such as iMessage and WhatsApp, law enforcement can get more information than you think.
E2EE does protect users’ messages from law enforcement. However, this doesn’t account for cloud storage.
“If an iMessage user has iCloud backups turned on, a copy of the encryption key is backed up along with the messages (for recovery purposes) and will be disclosed as part of Apple’s warrant return, enabling the messages to be read,” Just Security explains.
Just Security is a online forum based in the US which analyzes democracy, foreign policy, and rights.
The FBI and other law enforcement agencies can access your personal information with a warrant.
“With a warrant, WhatsApp will disclose which WhatsApp users have the target user in their address books, something not mentioned on WhatsApp’s law enforcement information page,” states Just Security.
Apple will also provide 25 days of iMessage information “from the target number, irrespective of whether a conversation took place.”
With a subpoena, law enforcement can render subscriber records from WhatsApp and iMessage, according to the FBI Lawful Access document (2020).
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