The Stack Archive

NSA and GCHQ tapping not in breach of human rights, declare judges

Fri 5 Dec 2014

The UK’s Investigatory Power Tribunal (IPT), has today ruled that authoritative bodies tapping major internet cables in the UK is a legal practice and is not in breach of human rights.

The semi-secret court, which handles complaints over authorities’ surveillance programmes, made the declaration to conclude a case brought forward by Amnesty International, Privacy International, Liberty and the ACLU. The case focused on the U.S. Prism and the British Tempora schemes, as revealed by whistle-blower Edward Snowden. Tempora reportedly involved GCHQ, the British spy agency, tapping into global communications via national infrastructures.


The UK is one of the major international hubs for these internet cables and would offer spies a platform to monitor global transfers of communications data. Major telecom firms were found to have been of assistance in creating the UK surveillance system, including Vodafone’s Cable & Wireless.

The IPT has now declared that GCHQ was legally able to tap cables under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA) – an anti-terror act which allows many UK authorities to conduct surveillance schemes.

The IPT also ruled that the NSA Prism programmes which reportedly acquires data from web service providers, is legal activity and managed with sufficient legal oversight. However, the court did stress that it would need further details before deciding on the legality of UK spies receiving bulk communications data from the NSA and other international bodies.

The IPT ruling stated:

Technology in the surveillance field appears to be advancing at break-neck speed. This has given rise to submissions that the UK legislation has failed to keep abreast of the consequences of these advances, and is ill fitted to do so; and that in any event Parliament has failed to provide safeguards adequate to meet these developments. All this invariably creates considerable tension between the competing interests, and the ‘Snowden revelations’ in particular have led to the impression voiced in some quarters that the law in some way permits the Intelligence Services carte blanche to do what they will. We are satisfied that this is not the case.

The statement continues to say that intelligence agencies must first get a warrant to tap “substantial quantities of communications.” Once intercepted, they can only access its contents “if it is necessary in the interests of national security, for the purpose of preventing or detecting serious crime or for the purpose of safeguarding the economic wellbeing of the United Kingdom.”

Privacy International and Bytes for All, a Pakistan-based NGO, are expected to appeal the ruling at the European Court of Human Rights.

Deputy director of Privacy International Eric King commented that “with GCHQ’s mass surveillance of undersea cables reported to have increased by as much as 7000% in the last five years, today’s decision by the IPT that this is business as usual is a worrying sign for us all.”

“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,” King continued.

Country director at Bytes for All Shazad Ahmed also noted that “the idea that the UK is not obliged to offer any privacy protections or safeguards to individuals outside of Britain when conducting surveillance is absurd, and puts at risk the privacy and free expression of human rights activists around the world.”

The full ruling can be found here [pdf]


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