Privacy Rights Groups Challenge GCHQ Mass Surveillance before Tribunal

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Privacy International, Amnesty International, and Liberty are among the organizations that are challenging the GCHQ’s mass surveillance activities in court this week.

The case has been brought before the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) and centers around the existence of the UK’s mass surveillance program, called Tempora.

The IPT was founded 14 years ago to hear allegations that UK intelligence agencies have breached legal rights. According to Privacy International, “almost all its hearings are held in secret. Much of this hearing will be public.”

The hearing, which goes until Friday, seeks to determine whether the Tempora program exists and whether it violates the rights to privacy and freedom of expression.

Disclosed in documents leaked by Edward Snowden, the Tempora program is allegedly used by GCHQ to intercept communications through fiber optic cables entering and leaving the UK, according to a report by the Telegraph. The UK government will neither confirm nor deny the existence of the program.

The hearing also seeks to understand if the UK government has access to intelligence collected by the US under its PRISM and UPSTREAM programs. A recent investigation by the Washington Post showed that the NSA collected data on ordinary non-American Internet users, and that collection under the PRISM and UPSTREAM programs have a lower standard for foreignness standard of proof than a traditional surveillance warrant from a FISA judge.

According to a blog post on Monday by Privacy International, the hearing “is the first time that these UK government agencies, including GCHQ, have appeared in a public hearing to answer direct allegations and state their position on the mass surveillance operations as a whole, since the Snowden revelations.”

The hearing comes as the UK is planning to fast-track emergency legislation aimed at communications service providers in order to ensure metadata is retained for 12 months, allowing police and security services to access it.

“The timing of this legislation could not be more audacious,” Carly Nyst, legal director of Privacy International said. “It’s shameful that the government should be pursuing a further expansion of its surveillance state at a time when the already extensive powers of the British security services are being challenged in the courts and in the public domain.”

On Monday, lawyers for GCHQ and the government argued that the UK’s process of intelligence sharing with the US complies with right to privacy and family life under article 8 of the European convention on human rights. According to a report by The Guardian, government lawyers said that mass interception of data is necessary even if only one person is being targeted.

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