The main GCHQ building in Cheltenham. Photo: Ministry of Defence
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Privacy campaigners score big win as tribunal rules GCHQ's mass surveillance "illegal"

Programmes where US and UK security services intercepted and shared private data were unlawful, tribunal declares.

The Information Powers Tribunal (IPT) has ruled that GCHQ violated human rights legislation when it conducted mass surveillance of the British population, up until December 2014. It is the first time that the tribunal has ruled against any intelligence agency since its founding in 2000, according to Privacy International, whose deputy director Eric King has called the decision "a vindication" of Edward Snowden's decision to leak details of its existence to the media.

Today's ruling specifically refers to the information-sharing schemes that GCHQ runs with America's National Security Agency, known as Prism and Upstream. Under these programmes, which began in 2007, data on millions of people around the world were secretly shared between the agencies without proper public scrutiny.

Ironically, the programmes are considered compliant with human rights legislation now because of the Snowden leaks, and campaigns for disclosure by groups like Privacy International and Liberty, who brought the initial case to the tribunal - that these programmes are now considered public knowledge means that the tribunal is satisfied that there is now sufficient public oversight of their workings. James Welch, Liberty legal director, said in a statement: 

We now know that, by keeping the public in the dark about their secret dealings with the National Security Agency, GCHQ acted unlawfully and violated our rights. That their 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. But the Intelligence Services retain a largely unfettered power to rifle through millions of people’s private communications – and the Tribunal believes the limited safeguards revealed during last year’s legal proceedings are an adequate protection of our privacy. We disagree, and will be taking our fight to the European Court of Human Rights.”

The Prism programme gave the intelligence agencies (often unfettered) direct access to data from social networks, apps and companies like Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, Skype and Twitter, while Upstream involves the direct interception of communications between computers by tapping directly into the large fibre-optic cables which carry the bulk of the world's internet traffic. Their existence was among the most explosive of the revelations revealed by Edward Snowden in June 2013, and they were declared lawful (but only from the moment of the judgement) by a December 2014 IPT decision, which activist groups are appealing to the European Court on Human Rights.

In its judgement, the mass interception of communications was deemed by the IPT to contravene both Article 8 (the right to private and family life) and Article 10 (the right to freedom of expression) of the European Convention on Human Rights. This is the first of many cases the IPT is due to consider with regards to widespread government surveillance, brought forward by anti-surveillance and pro-privacy groups.

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

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Keir Starmer MP: Choosing ideological purity before power is a dereliction of duty

The former director of public prosecutions believes getting involved with Brexit negotiations is crucial. 

 

Three weeks after Brexit, Keir Starmer held a public meeting in his London constituency of Holborn and St Pancras. “We had hundreds turning up,” he remembered. “The town hall was absolutely packed - it was standing room only and we had to turn people away. We haven’t had a public meeting of that size for some time.”

When it comes to Brexit, Starmer is an obvious Labour asset. Director of public prosecutions from 2008 to 2013, he has the legal background to properly scrutinise an EU deal. His time spent as a shadow immigration minister means he understands some of the thorniest problems facing negotiators.

But instead, the MP finds himself on the shadow back benches.

“My decision to resign was driven by Jeremy’s decision on the referendum,” he told The Staggers. “I was particularly troubled by his suggestion that we should invoke Article 50 straight away, and start the exit process [Corbyn has since backtracked on this suggestion]. 

“That is not for me a question of left-right politics. When he said that, I felt he was in fundamentally a different place from me in terms of how we fight for the future of our country.”

Starmer is not a man to enjoy life in opposition, and he has little time for airy promises. “Jeremy talks of dealing with inequality and housing projects, and a fairer society - all of which I would agree,” he said. “What I haven’t seen is the emergence of detailed policy that would get us to these places.”

He also gives purists in the party short shrift. “I would reject wholeheartedly any notion of a Labour Party that is not committed to returning to power at the first opportunity,” he said. “Of course that needs to be principled power. But standing on the sidelines looking for the purest ideology is a dereliction of the duty for any Labour member.”

Starmer believes Labour should be joining Scottish and Northern Irish leaders in trying to influence Brexit negotiations. He sees the time before invoking Article 50, the EU exit button, as crucial. 

Nevertheless, the man named after the Scottish founder of Labour, Keir Hardie, is pessimistic about the future of the UK. 

“It is going to be increasingly difficult to resist a further referendum in Scotland,” he said. “It will be increasingly difficult to keep Scotland as a part of the UK. I hope that doesn’t happen, but everyone knows David Cameron has put that at risk.”

Starmer may be a London MP, but he follows events in the rest of the country closely. While still in his shadow cabinet post, he embarked on a countrywide tour to learn more about attitudes to immigration.  

He condemns the increase in racist attacks post-Brexit as “despicable”, but insists there is “a world of difference” between these and genuine concerns about resources. “If you lose your job because there has been an influx of labour from another country, that is a legitimate cause for concern.”

He is equally scathing about the Government’s net migration cap. “If immigration is simply seen as a numbers game, nobody will ever win that debate,” he said. “The question should be: what is it we want to achieve?

“What do we expect of those who are arriving? What is the basic deal?”

In January, Starmer visited the informal camps in Calais and Dunkirk. “What I saw in Calais was appalling,” he said. “It is an hour from London. 

“To see families and children in freezing, squalid conditions without any real hope of a positive outcome was enough to make anybody think: ‘This is not the way to solve the refugee crisis.’”

The new PM, Theresa May, built her reputation on a rigid asylum policy, but Starmer believes a strong opposition can still force change. “If you take the Syrian resettlement scheme, that started life as a scheme for victims of sexual violence,” he said. “When pushed, it became a scheme for 20,000 Syrians but not if they reached Europe. When pushed, the Government accepted the case for some unaccompanied children in Europe to come to this country. 

“Labour needs to keep pushing.”

For now, though, Labour is divided. Starmer has been tipped as a future leader before, in 2015, but declined to run because of a lack of political experience. One year and a Brexit on, he certainly has some of that under his belt. But he rules himself out of the current leadership challenge: “I am 100 per cent behind Owen.” What will he do if Jeremy Corbyn wins? “Let’s cross each bridge when we come to it.”

Starmer is clear, though, that Labour can only win an election if it comes up with a more ambitious project, an economy with purpose. And the Brexit negotiations provide an opportunity. “We have to ask ourselves,” he said. “Do we simply want a series of trade agreements, the more the merrier? Or do we want deals that achieve certain ends? It is a moment to recast the future.”