PRISM: Privacy International Issues Legal Challenge Against GCHQ Snooping

By Tom Brewster
Tech Week Europe

Privacy International has filed a legal challenge against the UK government over claims it is involved in illegal, uncontrolled, secret spying on citizens. The organisation hopes to make a dent in the UK government’s alleged widespread snooping, but its legal challenge will be heard in secret.

The group has problems with both GCHQ’s access to the PRISM programme, a communications data collection initiative run by the US National Security Agency (NSA), and Tempora, a UK intelligence operation that collects information from tapped fibre lines.

Details of both programmes were leaked to the Guardian by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, who is still in Moscow hoping to be granted asylum in a foreign land. Both Venezuela and Bolivia have now offered asylum.

Privacy International pushes for change

Privacy International is concerned at the lack of court oversight of GCHQ’s access to PRISM and over the “indiscriminate interception” and storage of vast amounts of personal data.

The organisation said the lack of a legal framework around PRISM access appeared to be in breach of the European Convention of Human Rights, Article 8, which provides a right to privacy and personal communications, and Article 10, which provides the right to freedom of expression.

Privacy International believes Tempora may have breached the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA), which requires surveillance to be necessary and proportionate.

It wants to have an injunction stopping both operations.

People may not hear much about the case again, however. Thanks to forceful opposition from government lawyers, Privacy International has been forced to file its claim in the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT), where cases are held in secret and there is no need for the court to justify its decisions.

“If there is no way for citizens to know of the existence, interpretation, or execution of a law, then the law is effectively secret,” said Eric King, head of research at Privacy International.

“And secret law is not law. It is a fundamental breach of the social contract if the Government can operate with unrestrained power in such an arbitrary fashion.

“The scope and scale of this program, which monitors the entire British public and much of the world, cannot be justified as necessary and proportionate.”

Numerous nations have been named by Snowden as serial snoops. The latest to be revealed is Germany. Snowden told magazine Der Spiegel: “[The NSA] are in bed with the Germans, just like with most other Western states.”

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