UK panel OKs surveillance practices

AP News
Posted: Dec 05, 2014 12:24 PM

LONDON (AP) — A British tribunal ruled Friday that intelligence gathering practices used by the national electronic eavesdropping agency GCHQ do not constitute a privacy violation.

The five judges of the Investigatory Powers Tribunal on Friday rebuffed arguments brought by privacy advocates reacting to U.S. intelligence analyst Edward Snowden's disclosures about widespread data collection by U.S. and UK agencies.

The ruling follows five days of hearings in July on the alleged mass harvesting of data, which government officials refused to confirm or deny.

The tribunal said that for the purposes of its review, it assumed the allegations made by Snowden to be true. It found that the current eavesdropping practices, even as described by Snowden's leaked information, are "lawful and human rights compliant."

It said the methods used must be seen in the context of protecting national security at a time when the terrorist threat to Britain was judged to be "substantial" and has since been raised to "severe," meaning an attack is highly likely.

Privacy advocates, including Liberty, Privacy International, the American Civil Liberties Union and others, maintain GCHQ practices breach the European Convention on Human Rights.

Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the ACLU, said the ruling highlights the inadequate oversight of the intelligence community.

"Mass-surveillance programs operated by the U.S. and the UK pose a profound threat to fundamental democratic freedoms, including the right to privacy and the freedoms of speech and association," he said.

Privacy International and others said they plan to appeal the decision to the European Court of Human Rights.

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James Welch, legal director for Liberty, said the tribunal failed to grasp "why so many of us are deeply troubled" about GCHQ's practices.

"So a secretive court thinks that secret safeguards shown to it in secret are an adequate protection of our privacy," he said, complaining that GCHQ appears to enjoy "a seemingly unfettered power to rifle through our online communications."

The tribunal has the unusual role of investigating and then ruling on complaints about unlawful use of covert techniques by public authorities, including GCHQ, which provides British intelligence officials with a vast trove of information.

The judges did say questions remain about GCHQ's past surveillance practices.