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.

David Cameron speaks at a press conference following an EU summit in Brussels. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Cameron's EU concessions show that he wants to avoid an illegitimate victory

The Prime Minister is confident of winning but doesn't want the result to be open to challenge. 

Jeremy Corbyn's remarkable surge has distracted attention from what will be the biggest political event of the next 18 months: the EU referendum. But as the new political season begins, it is returning to prominence. In quick succession, two significant changes have been made to the vote, which must be held before the end of 2017 and which most expect next year.

When the Electoral Commission yesterday recommended that the question be changed from “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?” ("Yes"/"No") to "Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?" ("Leave"/"Remain"), No.10 immediately gave way. The Commission had warned that "Whilst voters understood the question in the Bill some campaigners and members of the public feel the wording is not balanced and there was a perception of bias." 

Today, the government will table amendments which reverse its previous refusal to impose a period of "purdah" during the referendum. This would have allowed government departments to continue to publish promotional material relating to the EU throughout the voting period. But after a rebellion by 27 Tory eurosceptics (only Labour's abstention prevented a defeat), ministers have agreed to impose neutrality (with some exemptions for essential business). No taxpayers' money will be spent on ads or mailshots that cast the EU in a positive light. The public accounts commitee had warned that the reverse position would "cast a shadow of doubt over the propriety" of the referendum.

Both changes, then, have one thing in common: David Cameron's desire for the result to be seen as legitimate and unquestionable. The Prime Minister is confident of winning the vote but recognises the danger that his opponents could frame this outcome as "rigged" or "stitched-up". By acceding to their demands, he has made it far harder for them to do so. More concessions are likely to follow. Cameron has yet to agree to allow Conservative ministers to campaign against EU membership (as Harold Wilson did in 1975). Most Tory MPs, however, expect him to do so. He will be mocked and derided as "weak" for doing so. But if the PM can secure a lasting settlement, one that is regarded as legitimate and definitive, it will be more than worth it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.