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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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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