UK spies can get intercepted communications from NSA without warrant, government lawyers admit

British intelligence services can get bulk intercepted communications data from the NSA and other foreign agencies without a warrant, information disclosed by government lawyers has shown. This would likely include the communications of people in the U.K. itself.

This information about “arrangements” between U.K. spy agency GCHQ and foreign counterparts such as the NSA was given to the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT), the body that supposedly oversees how spies and public authorities use surveillance under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, or RIPA. It was disclosed as part of a legal case brought about by human rights groups, including Privacy International, Amnesty International and Liberty, in the wake of Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks.

When authorities spy within the U.K., RIPA says they need a warrant to look at the contents of communications, as opposed to metadata, which is relatively easy to obtain. However, the arrangements that have now come to light say that the intelligence services can get “unanalysed intercepted communications” from foreign partners without a warrant from a government minister under certain circumstances, such as when “it is not technically feasible to obtain the communications via RIPA interception.”

That’s potentially a frequently occurring circumstance, but even if it’s rare, this information contradicts what Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee said immediately after the Snowden incident: that a warrant always accompanied GCHQ’s requests for information from the NSA.

What’s more, at least according to Privacy International’s reading, the newly released information also suggests that these arrangements bypass safeguards that would apply to material intercepted under RIPA. This would allow GCHQ to search through raw data about people who are in the U.K. – derived through programs such as Prism and Upstream — without the limits RIPA is supposed to place on reading the contents of communications.

Privacy International deputy director Eric King said in a statement that the information shows there is “little transparency and accountability” within the British intelligence community:

We now know that data from any call, internet search, or website you visited over the past two years could be stored in GCHQ’s database and analysed at will, all without a warrant to collect it in the first place. It is outrageous that the Government thinks mass surveillance, justified by secret “arrangements” that allow for vast and unrestrained receipt and analysis of foreign intelligence material is lawful.

Amnesty International legal and policy chief Michael Bochenek also weighed in, saying that “nothing short of a sufficiently detailed set of rules and effective safeguards in publicly accessible legislation can redress the major deficiencies in the government’s handling of communications surveillance.”