Mass Internet Surveillance Was Illegal, U.K. Spy Court SaysAndrea Gerlin
A U.K. court ruled against the nation’s spy agencies for the first time, saying the mass collection of Internet and phone data was illegal until late last year.
The data-sharing program with U.S. agencies “contravened” privacy and free-speech provisions in the European Convention on Human Rights, the Investigatory Powers Tribunal said Friday in London. The court said that the current rules are valid because of disclosures made by the government in December.
The debate over government agencies’ monitoring of computers, laptops and mobile phones to access personal data has intensified since documents leaked by former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden in 2013 exposed the extent of government spying. Those documents led to an international backlash against electronic surveillance.
“It’s uncomfortable for the government that this ruling is there,” said Paula Barrett, a data-privacy lawyer at Eversheds LLP in London. “There was illegality. That’s an uncomfortable statement. It does put a marker down in terms of the intelligence agencies going too far.”
Civil rights groups that sued the government over the issue hailed the judgment as a blow to state secrecy. The ruling was the first time the 15-year-old specialty court had ruled against one of the nation’s intelligence agencies, including the Government Communications Headquarters, MI5 and MI6.
Illegal Mass Surveillance
“Today’s decision confirms to the public what many have said all along -- over the past decade, GCHQ and the NSA have been engaged in an illegal mass surveillance sharing program that has affected millions of people around the world,” Eric King, deputy director of Privacy International, said in a statement.
The tribunal said in a December ruling that the U.K. addressed the legal issues with the programs by disclosing the procedures used to collect data.
“It’s not significant in relation to ongoing operations because they’ve already been corrected,” Barrett said.
James Welch, the legal director of another civil rights group, Liberty, said in a statement that the ruling showed the governments acted unlawfully by “keeping the public in the dark.”
Despite considering the ruling a victory, the civil rights groups said they would appeal the case to the European Court of Human Rights because the U.K. disclosures fall short of ensuring the U.K. adheres to its legal obligations.
The U.K. Home Office said the ruling merely confirms earlier decisions that the current programs are legal and the court is requiring no additional remedial measures.
“This judgment is about the amount of detail about those safeguards that needed to be in the public domain,” the Home Office said in a statement. “This government is committed to transparency. It has made public more detail than ever before about the work of the security and intelligence agencies, including through the publication of statutory codes of practice.”