Clandestine spying programs operated jointly by the U.S.-based National Security Agency (NSA) and Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) violated human rights laws for seven years, according to a British court.
The Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) ruled on Friday that GCHQ breached the law by accessing e-mail and phone records that had been intercepted by the NSA through several once-secret programs. Those programs were made public in 2013 through a series of news reports based on documents leaked by former U.S. government contractor Edward Snowden.
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The IPT — which runs independent of the British government — declared the information-sharing programs had violated the law since at least 2007 when the NSA introduced “PRISM,” a program that intercepted and collected the contents of Internet communications from a variety of U.S.-based technology companies, among them Apple, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo. The program was exposed in a news story published by The Guardian based on the Snowden documents.
The report claimed the NSA had direct access to the servers of the tech companies. Many of the companies responded by denying any knowledge of the PRISM program, saying they were in no way complicit with any government program that allowed intelligence officials the ability to spy on their users. Those companies said they only handed over the content of communications to government agents pursuant to a valid court order, which they occasionally fought if they disagreed with the merits (Microsoft is currently fighting one such order).
Following reports by The Guardian and others, civil liberties groups in Britain raised a grievance with IPT, the only body that handles complaints about investigatory agencies in the country. The IPT’s finding of a violation marks the first time the body has sided with a grievant since it was formed in 2000.
The IPT found that the British government’s collection, storage and access of “private communications of individuals located in the U.K.” that was “obtained by U.S. authorities” were in violation of Articles 8 and 10 of the European convention on human rights. Those articles deal with the privacy and freedom of expression of European citizens.
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The order said that the violations occurred in the seven-year period following PRISM’s activation until recently. The IPT says the programs now comply with the European laws mentioned.
The civil liberties group Privacy International was one of several to bring the complaint before the IPT. In an editorial published by The Guardian, Privacy International’s legal director Carly Nyst said the order was a victory against the “surveillance state” in that it reasoned the British and American governments violated the law with their mass collection and interception programs.
“This finding was a genuine — and rare — success,” Nyst wrote. “Today [we] have a firm statement that the intelligence services were acting completely out of bounds … it is a significant victory against an arm of the state that has rarely been forced to account for its wrongdoings.”
Trevor Timm, the co-founder and executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, said Friday’s decision by the IPT vindicated Snowden, who fled the country shortly before being charged with espionage by the American government in 2013.
“The decision is more evidence that not only were the Snowden revelations necessary and justified, but are also slowly forcing changes in both U.S. and U.K., even as both governments fiercely resist,” Timm wrote.
Documents leaked by Snowden revealed that PRISM was considered by the NSA to be the “number one source of raw intelligence” used by agents for their analysis.
Matthew Keys is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.