PRISM: Public investigation into GCHQ mass surveillance starts

The Investigatory Powers Tribunal will decide whether GCHQ violated human rights during PRISM and Tempora

A court has begun taking evidence to decide if the UK Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) violated human rights with its surveillance activities during campaigns PRISM and Tempora campaign.

The Investigatory Powers Tribunal will hear complainants from Liberty, Privacy International, Amnesty International and seven overseas human rights groups, in a case beginning on Monday at the Royal Courts of Justice.

The complaints are designed to challenge the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC’s) ruling in July 2013 that the GCHQ’s use of data collected during the NSA’s notorious PRISM programme was entirely legal.

GCHQ’s involvement in the US National Security Agency’s (NSA) PRISM operations first came to light in 2013 when controversial ex-CIA analyst Edward Snowden leaked classified documents to the press.

The documents proved that the GCHQ was using data that the NSA collected from technology companies including Microsoft, Facebook, Google, Yahoo and Apple.

The GCHQ was later accused of mounting its own mass-surveillance campaign codenamed Tempora. This allegedly saw the GCHQ collect vast sums of information by accessing and monitoring the undersea telecoms cables that form the backbone of the internet.

Senior director for law and policy at Amnesty International Michael Bochenek said the 2013 ruling was a move by the government to sweep privacy concerns under the rug. “The UK government is manipulating national laws to ensure it can continue to flout international ones. Clearly Number 10 would rather move the goalposts than play by the rules,” he said.

Liberty’s legal director James Welch agreed, arguing that the GCHQ’s activities are at the very least unethical. “Not content with forcing service providers to keep details of our calls and browsing histories, the government is fighting to retain the right to trawl through our communications with anyone outside and many inside the country,” he said.

“When will it learn that it is neither ethical nor efficient to turn everyone into suspects?”

A Cabinet Office spokesman challenged Amnesty International and Liberty’s arguments in a statement sent to V3. He reiterated that the original investigation was adequate and further disclosure of its surveillance activities will damage the agency’s defensive operations.

“Our intelligence agencies do a vital job: keeping people safe. They act within a strict legal and policy framework. GCHQ’s activities are in accordance with the law. This has been endorsed by both the ISC and the Interception of Communications commissioner in his Annual Report for 2013,” read the statement.

“The Interception commissioner looked in detail at whether the interception agencies ‘misuse their powers to engage in random mass intrusion into the private affairs of law-abiding UK citizens’. He has concluded that the answer is ’emphatically no’. It would be inappropriate to comment on the detail of the ongoing challenges in the Investigatory Powers Tribunal.”

The GCHQ is one of many intelligence agencies facing calls for increased transparency regarding its surveillance activities. Numerous companies and lobbying groups within the US have called for increased transparency regarding the NSA’s activities.

Microsoft argued in June that the lack of firm information about the agencies’ activities since PRISM is causing ongoing damage to the technology industry.

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