GCHQ Will Have To Start Letting Everyone Know Whether Or Not They've Been Illegally Spied On

from the suck-it,-spooks dept

Last December, the IPT (Investigatory Powers Tribunal) ruled that GCHQ’s surveillance programs didn’t violate human rights, despite being broad and untargeted dragnets. This ruling — in response to several legal challenges brought in the wake of the Snowden leaks — was unsurprising. The IPT has overwhelmingly supported GCHQ’s spying efforts in the past, having only sided against it in one-half of one percent of the challenges brought against it.

The IPT’s ongoing support of the UK’s intelligence community is unsurprising. To declare any of its programs as illegal or in violation of citizens’ rights would be to implicate itself for its near-constant approval of surveillance programs. That makes its February decision a bit of an aberration. In response to Privacy International’s legal challenge, it changed course slightly, declaring certain elements of the GCHQ’s spying efforts “illegal” — specifically, information sharing with the NSA. But this was only a partial capitulation. The IPT went on to say that this was once illegal but now was not, thanks to its December 2014 ruling. In some bizarre way, the legal complaints brought against the GCHQ managed to legalize its once-illegal partnership with the NSA.

However, its February decision makes it clear that operations prior to December 2014 were illegal, and provides an opening for UK citizens to force a bit more transparency on their intelligence community.

Because the IPT found the intelligence sharing to be illegal, anyone, inside or outside the UK, can file a complaint to the IPT and ask if their communications were part of that illegal sharing, and be legally entitled to an answer. [Privacy International’s Eric] King explained, “If they don’t find anything, it’s likely they respond ‘no determination’. If they do find something, the IPT is obliged to give a declaration to the individual that their communications were illegally interfered with.”

This is far more transparency than has been granted by the NSA, which still responds to similar inquiries about files on citizens (from those citizens themselves) with its omnipresent Glomar declaration, neither confirming nor denying the collected results of its domestic surveillance programs.

So, anyone in the world will be allowed to ask — and receive an answer — about being swept up in shared GCHQ-NSA dragnets, provided the query only involves shared data and occurred before the IPT’s legalization of this partnership in December of last year. And there are even more restrictions. The data has to be something collected by the NSA and shared with the GCHQ, not vice versa, and must still be retained and accessible at the point the GCHQ receives the inquiry.

While there are many specifics limiting the public’s involvement, there will be no specifics forthcoming from the UK’s spy agencies.

Despite this apparent narrowness, the number of people that could get a yes could be in the hundreds of millions. However, The IPT will not reveal the granularity of information GCHQ kept on you. “People will never find out if it was their phone records that GCHQ had, or just a specific email,” said King, “They only answer they’ll get is a broad one of yes, GCHQ had data about you illegally from NSA.”

Privacy International will be funneling these requests in to the IPT via a submission form at its site. The selectors (email address, name, telephone number) will be handed over to the GCHQ to be used to search for matching, NSA-originated shared data. If found, requestors will be given their detail-free “yes” answer and the illegally-obtained data will be destroyed. It’s not a huge step forward but it’s a start.

What this will do, however, is open up the GCHQ to many more legal challenges — something that may result in even further accountability and curtailing of its powers. Privacy International is basically creating a class action suit against the UK spy agency. It’s not money the group is after, but more transparency. It hopes to force the GCHQ into revealing more details about its domestic surveillance and its partnership with the NSA.

Privacy International’s Eric King admits this won’t be an easy — or short — process. It’s very likely the GCHQ will mount its own challenge against the IPT’s decision, and will resort to its usual opacity and obfuscation to avoid giving members of the public the yes/no answer the tribunal has declared they’re entitled to. (And losing the illegally-obtained data in the process…) But in terms of reactions to the Snowden leaks, this decision (potentially) demands more accountability from the UK’s spy agency than all of the administration’s weak NSA reforms combined.

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Companies: privacy international

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Comments on “GCHQ Will Have To Start Letting Everyone Know Whether Or Not They've Been Illegally Spied On”

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17 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Kinda reminds me of dealing with Data Brokers:

Hi! Here at Acxiom, we would love tell you what personal information we have stored under your name. In the name of privacy, we must confirm your identity. Please provide us with the following: full name, DOB, SSN, residence and phone number history for the past thirty years, copies of all of your tax returns since the age of 16, a blood sample, a urine sample, a full fingerprint array, a list of your deepest darkest fears, and all of your money. Thanks! We look forward to telling you about what we know about you!

Anonymous Coward says:

Really, Tim? I can’t believe that you completely missed the MUCH LARGER point. American citizens can’t sue their government for illegally scooping up data on Americans. The reason is that they cannot prove that they’ve been spied on and therefore do not have standing. If American citizens can get proof that the NSA scooped up their data and shared it with GCHQ, BAM! Instant standing! The bigger story is what this will do to the American courts!

Anonymous Coward says:

Im sorry, but the way they’ve built it, a large number already is, and then it will go on perpetually so that eventually EVERYONE is illegally surveyed

Storing massive amount of information on people, ilegally aquired without asking or given consent……..no, its NOT OK, its the worse bit of this bullshit, arrogance and entitlement to our info

Im loathe to say this because i’d rather see ALL GLOBAL surveillance destroyed, but at the very MINIMUM, what they should have done from the begining is hook up every piece of surveillance system together, had them switched off by default, in TRUE emergencies, REQUEST that they could turn it on for a stadard pre determined time, where a civil body has a say in granting the request while also having some sort of physical key that guarantees that the system cannot be turned on without this civil representation knowing

Fuck preventative always on “pre crime” surveillance”…..only reactionary surveillance……..and after that predetermined amount of time has passed, all data is DELETED except anything that involves the reason it was turned on, which is reviewed first to make sure it actually involves just that……so no huge fucking databases to fucking abuse in future if not already fucking doing it

Arrogant pigs……….there are many ways to use technology for good, many options…….STOP GOING FOR THE FUCKED UP ONES

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