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UK court rules that GCHQ-NSA intelligence sharing is illegal

Since the first reporting on documents disclosed by Edward Snowden in June 2013, a number of legal challenges to GCHQ’s surveillance practices have been initiated in the UK. Today, in response to one of those applications, from Liberty and several other organisations, the court that oversees the GCHQ ruled against the UK intelligence services for the first time in its controversial 15 year history.

In the short, two-page ruling, the Investigatory Powers Tribunal declares that, before December 2014 “the regime governing the soliciting, receiving, storing and transmitting by the UK authorities of private communications of individuals in the UK, which have been obtained by the US authorities” under the NSA’s PRISM and UPSTREAM (collection from fibre-optic cable) programmes breached Articles 8 and 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The IPT does not apply any sort of sanction to GCHQ for operating illegally for more than a decade.

A previous judgment in December had declared that, due to disclosures made during the case, GCHQ’s arrangements should be regarded as legal from December 2014 onwards. Those newly-disclosed secret policies are extremely permissive, showing that UK agencies can receive or request bulk data from foreign intelligence agencies, including the NSA, without a warrant whenever it would “not be technically feasible” for them to acquire the information themselves with a UK warrant.

In their post announcing today’s judgement, Privacy International have confirmed that they will appeal the court’s earlier opinion from December 2014 at the European Court of Human Rights. The European Court has already granted a rare priority status to two other challenges to UK surveillance laws.

Of course, without Edward Snowden’s actions, we would not know about PRISM, the NSA’s various Special Source Collection programmes or, indeed, GCHQ’s Tempora programme, which the IPT also refused to rule against in December 2014. As Eric King of Privacy International has said today, the new IPT judgment is a “vindication” of his actions. It also shows that, without Edward Snowden’s intervention, GCHQ would have been allowed to act unlawfully and in violation of the human rights of UK citizens indefinitely.

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