UK Tribunal Says Spying Programs Are Legal

By Cora Currier (The Intercept)

Photo: Ben Birchall/AP
Photo: Ben Birchall/AP

A panel of judges in the U.K. has ruled that bulk surveillance programs don’t necessarily violate the human rights of British citizens.

The Investigatory Powers Tribunal, an independent judicial body set up to hear public complaints about secret intelligence programs, reviewed secret British government intelligence-gathering exposed by documents leaked by Edward Snowden.  A coalition of civil and human rights groups had filed a complaint with the tribunal over a program run by the British intelligence agency GCHQ called TEMPORA, which involves tapping and storing vast amounts of internet data from transatlantic fibre-optic cables. The complaint also included the foreign intelligence-sharing arrangements that gave British spies access to programs like the National Security Agency’s internet data-collection program PRISM.

Such surveillance violated privacy and free expression rights guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights, the groups argued.

But the tribunal wrote that “the Snowden revelations in particular have led to the impression…that the law permits the intelligence services carte blanche to do what they will. We are satisfied that this is not the case.”

The tribunal has almost never sided against the government, so today’s decision did not come as a surprise to those following the proceedings, much of which happened behind closed doors. The matter isn’t entirely over, however: The judges said they would still consider specific instances where data collection on the groups may have violated their rights. The British government hasn’t conceded that TEMPORA even exists, and so the debates leading to today’s decision were all in the realm of the hypothetical.

London-based watchdog group Privacy International says it will appeal the decision at the European Court of Human Rights.

“The idea that previously secret documents, signposting other still secret documents, can justify this scale of intrusion is just not good enough, and not what society should accept from a democracy based on the rule of law,” said Eric King, director of Privacy International, in a statement.

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