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GCHQ surveillance illegal – but suddenly it’s not

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So has GCHQ been found guilty of breaches in human rights law or not? You’d be right to be confused. The Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) has issued a resumé of a judgment and news reports tended to take a negative line, saying things like “GCHQ unlawfully spied on British citizens“. The Guardian website started with “GCHQ mass internet surveillance was unlawful, court rules” later going with a more precise “UK-US surveillance was unlawful for seven years“.

Yet, on the face of it the IPT has given GCHQ a pretty clean bill of health in terms of its receipt of UK surveillance information from the National Security Agency (NSA). Up there at the top of the Tribunal’s release was this:

“Save in one possible (and to date hypothetical) respect … the current regime, both in relation to Prism and Upstream [US surveillance programmes] and to s.8(4), [of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA)], when conducted in accordance with the requirements which we have considered, is lawful and human rights compliant.”

The Tribunal ruled the activities lawful now. But until now (or specifically until the IPT judgment in the Liberty v FCO case last December) they weren’t. What has made them legal now? Well, what made things unlawful previously was not, apparently, that GCHQ accessed (from US sources), downloaded and kept material from mass surveillance of UK emails, phone records and internet searches – but that it failed to tell us that it had accessed, downloaded and kept material from mass surveillance of emails, phone records and internet searches. It’s legal now, in part, thanks to the publicity surrounding this very judgment – from a Tribunal that actually sits in secret.

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