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UK Watchdog Says That Surveillance of Citizens Is Perfectly Legal

Monday, January 26th, 2015

UK Watchdog Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) has ruled that the British security and intelligence agency GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) did not break any laws while conducting mass surveillance of British citizens. IPT, which is the judicial body that investigates complaints against British security agencies, concluded that the monitoring techniques used by the Cheltenham based intelligence agency did not violate rights to privacy or freedom of speech. With the latest verdict, the British intelligence agencies have managed to retain their flawless record in the court since no complaint against them has ever been upheld by the watchdog.

The verdict of the IPT was in response to the case filed by several privacy and civil right groups, including Privacy International, Liberty, Amnesty and American Civil Liberties Union; following the sensational revelations made by Edward Snowden. It may be recalled that Snowden had caused a huge uproar by revealing the mass surveillance practices of intelligence agencies such as NSA and GCHQ. He had also revealed how NSA was mining private data of millions of online users by collaborating with the US tech companies and GCHQ was spying by wiretapping fiber optic cables.

While filing the case, the privacy groups had argued that the surveillance techniques used by NSA and GCHQ, including the practice of spying on private emails and phone records, violated article 8 and 10 (right to privacy and freedom of expression) of European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The civil groups had also alleged that GCHQ had access to data collected by the US intelligence agency NSA (via Prism and Upstream surveillance programs) and that the intelligence agency ran its own surveillance program (nicknamed Tempora) to spy on UK citizens.

While giving the verdict in GCHQ’s favor, the panel of judges hearing the case said that they were reasonably convinced that the surveillance systems used by the intelligence agency did not breach articles 8 or 10 of ECHR. However, the decision did not cover privacy violations that may have happened in the past. As a result, the IPT panel decided to leave open the question of historical breaches to further argument.

The civil groups are planning to appeal against the judgment in the ECHR. The legal adviser of Amnesty UK, Rachel Logan, mentioned that the UK security agency and the government had managed to bluff out of the case by playing the “National Security” card. She also noted how the entire defense of GCHQ rested on the quote “Trust Us” but since the intelligence agency had already breached the trust of millions of Britishers, waving the issue of “National Security” or merely saying “Trust Us” is not going to be enough.

One positive fallout of the case was that the government was forced to reveal a number of policies that currently govern information sharing with foreign intelligence agencies (including NSA). While the GCHQ did not reveal a lot of secret information (including the existence or details of the Tempora program), the intelligence agency disclosed how it monitors online searches made by British citizens or mails sent by non-British people without the need of a warrant.

January 26, 2015

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