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Surprise! UK court defends NSA and GCHQ surveillance and data-sharing

By Nathaniel Mott , written on December 5, 2014

From The News Desk

The United Kingdom's Investigatory Powers Tribunal has decided that the collection of information by the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) intelligence agency, and its ability to get data from the National Security Agency, do not represent a human rights violation.

The decision was issued in response to a complaint from Privacy International, the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International, and others, about the surveillance and data-sharing programs revealed as the result of Edward Snowden's whistleblowing in 2013.

GCHQ is able to legally gather information pertaining to UK citizens because that data is often routed through services based in the United States, even if the communications are between two people in the UK, thanks to the US's status as one of the world's primary communication hubs.

That defense was put forward by the director general of the Office of Counter Terrorism in June. It was the first time someone revealed the rationale behind the UK's participation in the NSA's indiscriminate surveillance programs, and like other defenses of intelligence agency snooping, the argument was flawed at best. But that hasn't stopped the tribunal from accepting its premise.

The human rights groups which brought the complaint to the tribunal have lambasted its decision. Here's how Rachel Logan, Amnesty International UK's legal advisor, responded:

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. And here's what Privacy International's legal director, Carly Nyst, said about the decision:

The proceedings forced the Government to disclose secret policies governing how foreign intelligence agencies, including the NSA, share information with GCHQ. Privacy International believes that the fact that these secret policies are only now public because we have forced their disclosure in court means that such rules could never make the actions of GCHQ in accordance with the law. The IPT must find that secret law is not law, and should at the very least rule that all UK access to PRISM was unlawful prior to today.
Perhaps neither of them should have been surprised by the decision. As the Guardian notes in its report on the outcome, no complaint against intelligence services has been upheld in the 14 years since the tribunal was founded. There is also no right to appeal against the court's decisions.

So there are secret laws defending secret programs upheld by semi-secret courts that can hold closed hearings which cannot be appealed. That's what passes for intelligence oversight in the UK -- and, unless there's meaningful reform made across the pond, in the US as well.

[illustration by Hallie Bateman]