UK cable-tapping programs are legal, spy court rules

The U.K.’s Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT), a semi-secret court that deals with complaints over the authorities’ surveillance activities, has declared that the authorities’ tapping of major internet cables that touch the U.K. is legal in principle and does not breach human rights.

The ruling came in a case that had been brought about by Amnesty International, Privacy International, Liberty and the ACLU. The case centered on the U.S. Prism program and a British scheme called Tempora, which – according to the documents revealed by NSA leaker Edward Snowden – involved U.K. spy agency GCHQ tapping into much of the world’s communications by targeting core internet infrastructure.

The U.K. is a crucial hub for these cables, giving the spies the ability to monitor data flowing from most parts of the world. To do so, it has secured help from carriers such as the Vodafone-owned Cable & Wireless.

The IPT ruled on Friday that GCHQ could in principle legally tap the cables under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA), a piece of anti-terror legislation that enables much of the U.K. authorities’ surveillance activities. It also said Prism, through which the NSA gains access to data from the systems of web service providers, is legal and conducted with sufficient oversight.

However, the court is still keen to find out more about the past legality of GCHQ receiving bulk intercepted material, which may relate to British citizens, from the NSA and other international partners.

Privacy International and Bytes for All, a Pakistani NGO defending activists in that country who feared their communications were being monitored by the British, said in a statement that they will now appeal the IPT ruling at the European Court of Human Rights.

The IPT stated in its ruling:

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.

It went on to say that the intelligence services must get a warrant to intercept “substantial quantities of communications” and can only access material from those communications “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.”

The case has already uncovered more than was previously known about the U.K. authorities’ previously secret legal rationales for their spies’ activities. It is also the first case in which the IPT has held public hearings — though many of the hearings were still closed.

Further hearings about “whether there has been in fact any unlawful interception or treatment of the Claimants’ communications” — in other words, whether the spies broke the law before Snowden and this case forced them to reveal their policies — will also be held behind closed doors.

Privacy International deputy director Eric King said:

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.

Bytes for All country director Shahzad Ahmed added:

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.

Here’s the ruling:

Investigatory Powers Tribunal Tempora ruling

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This article was updated several times with new information.

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