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6 February 2015updated 26 Sep 2015 7:17am

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.

By Ian Steadman

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.

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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.

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