GCHQ found guilty of illegal spying on human rights groups

An aerial image of the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire. (Photo from wikipedia.org)
Two human rights groups were spied on illegally by British security agency GCHQ, the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) has ruled after the groups lodged formal complaints.

GCHQ was found guilty of keeping hold of emails for longer than is legally permissible and violated its own internal procedures, the IPT ruled.

The IPT, however, ruled that the initial interception of mail from both the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights and the South African non-profit Legal Resources Centre was legal.

“The tribunal is concerned that steps should be taken to ensure that neither of the breaches of procedure referred to in this determination occurs again,” the IPT ruling said.

For the avoidance of doubt, the tribunal makes it clear that it will be making a closed report to the prime minister.”

Their case was brought to the tribunal following NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations of mass surveillance practices by US and UK authorities.

READ MORE: Snowden destroyed files before going to Russia – Greenwald debunks Sunday Times report

Privacy International deputy director Eric King said the case showed the immoral practice of the security agency.

“If spying on human rights NGOs isn’t off-limits for GCHQ, then what is?” he said. “Clearly our spy agencies have lost their way. For too long they’ve been trusted with too much power, and too few rules for them to protect against abuse. How many more problems with GCHQ’s secret procedures have to be revealed for them to be brought under control?”

He called on the government to create new laws that would prevent the agencies from spying on NGOs and charitable organizations.

“Trying to pass off such failings as ‘technical,’ or significant changes in law as mere ‘clarifications,’ has become a tiring defense for those who know the jig is up,” King said. “The courts are begrudgingly helping to ensure that the sun is slowly setting on GCHQ’s Wild West ways. Now we need parliament to step in to fix what should have been fixed a long time ago.”

Liberty legal director James Welch condemned GCHQ’s behavior, saying that spying on human rights groups had dangerous implications.

“Last year it was revealed that GCHQ were eavesdropping on sacrosanct lawyer-client conversations. Now we learn they’ve been spying on human rights groups. What kind of signal are British authorities sending to despotic regimes and those who risk their lives to challenge them all over the world? Who is being casual with human life now?”

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This case is one of many mounted by organizations after the Snowden revelations.

In February, the IPT ruled that US/UK data sharing practice had been operating illegally for seven years, claiming the agencies had breached human rights law.

In response to the findings, Legal Resources Centre national director Janet Love said: “The [center] is deeply concerned to learn that communications of our organization have been subject to unlawful interception by GCHQ. As a public interest law firm, our communications are self-evidently confidential, and we consider this to be a serious breach of the rights of our organization and the individuals concerned.

“We can no longer accept the conduct of the intelligence services acting under such a pernicious veil of secrecy, and we will be taking immediate action to try to establish more information … We are particularly grateful for Liberty’s efforts in spearheading this litigation and making it possible for this information to be brought to light.”