GCHQ acted unlawfully in accessing millions of people’s private communications collected in bulk by the USA’s National Security Agency. That’s the ruling of the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, which was announced today.
The Tribunal found that the intelligence sharing relationship was unlawful prior to December 2014 because rules governing the UK’s access to the National Security Agency’s (NSA) mass electronic surveillance programmes PRISM and Upstream were secret.
The landmark ruling represents the very first time the Tribunal – which is designed specifically to consider complaints brought against GCHQ, MI5 and MI6 – has found against the intelligence agencies in its 15-year history.
The data-sharing deal between the USA and UK came to light last year during legal proceedings – brought by civil liberties groups Liberty, Privacy International and Amnesty International – designed to challenge GCHQ’s surveillance practices in the wake of the Snowden revelations.
In December 2014, the Tribunal held that GCHQ’s access to NSA intelligence was lawful from that time onward because secret policies governing the UK-US relationship were made public during the case.
Liberty disagrees that the limited safeguards revealed are sufficient to make GCHQ’s mass surveillance and intelligence sharing activities lawful, and will now challenge the Tribunal’s December decision at the European Court of Human Rights.
James Welch, legal director for Liberty, said: “We now know that, by keeping the public in the dark about its secret dealings with the National Security Agency, GCHQ acted unlawfully and violated our rights. That its activities are now deemed lawful is thanks only to the degree of disclosure Liberty and the other claimants were able to force from our secrecy-obsessed Government.”
Welch added: “The Intelligence Services retain a largely unfettered power to rifle through millions of people’s private communications. The Tribunal believes the limited safeguards revealed during last year’s legal proceedings are an adequate protection of our privacy. We disagree. Accordingly, we will now be taking our fight to the European Court of Human Rights.”
Eric King, deputy director of Privacy International, commented: “For far too long, intelligence agencies like GCHQ and the NSA have acted like they are above the law. The Tribunal’s decision confirms to the public what many have said all along. Over the past decade, GCHQ and the NSA have been engaged in an illegal mass surveillance sharing program that has affected millions of people around the world.”
King also said: “We must not allow agencies to continue justifying mass surveillance programs using secret interpretations of secret laws. The world owes Edward Snowden a great debt for blowing the whistle. Today’s decision is a vindication of his actions, but more work needs to be done.”
In conclusion, King stated: “The only reason why the NSA-GCHQ sharing relationship is still legal today is because of a last-minute clean-up effort by the Government to release previously secret ‘arrangements’. That’s plainly not enough to fix what remains a massive loophole in the law, and we very much hope that the European Court decides to rule in favour of privacy rather than unchecked State power.”
Response from GCHQ