UK: ‘Historic’ surveillance ruling finds intelligence-sharing illegal

Amnesty International and others won an historic victory today as the legal body that oversees the practices of the UK secret services acknowledged that the USA and the UK’s intelligence sharing on communications surveillance violated human rights law.

Today’s ruling was handed down by the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT), which has jurisdiction over the practices of GCHQ, MI5 and MI6. The Tribunal said that until now, the UK government’s procedures’ for “soliciting, receiving, storing and transmitting by UK authorities of private communications of individuals located in the UK, which have been obtained by US authorities” pursuant to PRISM and Upstream violated international human rights standards.

“This is an historic victory in the age-old battle for the right to privacy and free expression,” said Rachel Logan, Amnesty International UK’s legal programme director. 

“The UK government has been rumbled here. The government has been playing a cat and mouse game over surveillance – talking about ‘national security’ while trying to cover up unlawful behaviour in its use of private data. 

“Governments around the world are becoming increasingly greedy and unscrupulous in the way they sweep up and use our personal information. This is about showing that the law exists to keep the government spooks in check.” 

Amnesty International, Liberty, Privacy International, the American Civil Liberties Union and others brought the case to the IPT. It is the first time the Tribunal has ruled that the government’s surveillance practices have been unlawful. 

However, the IPT said that US-UK intelligence-sharing related to communications surveillance is now lawful due to government disclosures made during the case regarding the safeguards in place when obtaining information from the US authorities.   

Amnesty International strongly disagrees with this, as the limited disclosure of those government policies falls far short of ensuring the intelligence-sharing complies with the UK’s human rights obligations. The organization is planning to challenge the IPT rulings at the European Court of Human Rights.