UK court decision on government mass surveillance: ‘Trust us’ isn’t enough

The tribunal which oversees the practices of the UK secret services today ruled that the law governing the UK’s communications surveillance practices complies with the Human Rights Act, in what Amnesty International said was a ‘disappointing if unsurprising’ ruling. The organization will now submit the case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

“The government has managed to bluff their way out of this, retreating into closed hearings, and constantly playing the ‘national security’ card. The tribunal has accepted that approach,” said Rachel Logan, Amnesty International UK’s legal advisor.

“We have had to painstakingly drag out every detail we could from an aggressively resistant government. The IPT’s decisions – uniquely – cannot be appealed within the UK and this is a disappointing, if unsurprising, verdict from an overseer that was in part assessing itself. 

“The government’s entire defence has amounted to ‘trust us’ and now the tribunal has said the same.”

The decision by the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) is part of a legal challenge against the UK intelligence agencies brought by Amnesty International, Privacy International, Liberty and others following revelations by US whistleblower Edward Snowden. It says that there are sufficient clear limits in law and sufficient oversight of the government’s surveillance practices to satisfy its human rights obligations.

The judgment was made on the basis of “hypothetical facts” given the government’s continued refusal to confirm or deny any of its surveillance practices. The tribunal held considerable portions of the proceedings in secret, and in the “open” hearing the government repeatedly said it could “neither confirm nor deny” many of the key matters at the heart of the case.

A central question in the organizations’ claim was whether or not the legal regime governing the exposed mass surveillance practises was sufficiently clear, comprehensive and public to comply with the UK’s human rights obligations. The government was permitted to rely on secret policies and processes to demonstrate that it was, but refused to make those policies and procedures public. The tribunal today asserted that it is sufficient that such secret policies and procedures are ‘signposted’ in general terms: the public do not need to know anything more.

“Since we only know about the scale of such surveillance thanks to Snowden, and given that ‘national security’ has been recklessly bandied around, ‘trust us’ isn’t enough,” said Rachel Logan. 

“We will now appeal to Strasbourg, who might not be as inclined to put their trust in the UK government given what we know so far.”

There may now be a consideration by the tribunal as to whether or not Amnesty International’s communications have in fact have been intercepted and used by the UK government.