The UK government has enacted an exception to computer security legislation for the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), giving its staff immunity from prosecution for what the mainstream media likes to misidentify as 'hacking.'

Part of the government's ongoing crackdown into electronic privacy, news broke late last week via the Guardian that a clause of the Computer Misuse Act has been quietly modified, allowing law enforcement officials to break in to electronic systems without fear of prosecution under the Act - including laptops, desktops, servers, tablets, smartphones and electronic communications systems - requiring only that the devices targeted belong to 'suspected criminals.' The amended Act does not require that a separate court order or warrant is obtained for each inquiry, the paper has reported.

'We had previously thought [hacking] in this country to be unlawful,' Ben Jaffey of rights group Privacy International told the Guardian of the modification, which was only brought to the group's attention last week. 'The effect of this amendment has passed everyone by. Attention was not called to it during the parliamentary process, which may not have been accidental. It was hidden in plain sight.'

The modifications to the Act were enacted by royal assent on the 3rd of March 2015 as part of the Serious Crime Act 2015, but critics are claiming it was not properly debated and that no reference to the exemption was made in the parliamentary notes which accompanied the Act - preventing members of parliament from properly debating its impact. The Home Office, meanwhile, has told the Guardian that 'there have been no changes made to the Computer Misuse Act 1990 by the Serious Crime Act 2015 that increase or expand the ability of the intelligence agencies to carry out lawful cyber crime investigation.'

'The underhand and undemocratic manner in which the Government is seeking to make lawful GCHQ's hacking operations is disgraceful,' claimed Eric King, Privacy International's deputy director, in comments to the group's blog post on the matter. 'Hacking is one of the most intrusive surveillance capabilities available to any intelligence agency, and its use and safeguards surrounding it should be the subject of proper debate. Instead, the government is continuing to neither confirm nor deny the existence of a capability it is clear they have, while changing the law under the radar, without proper parliamentary debate.'
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