Once Snowden revealed the existence of surveillance programs run by the NSA in cooperation with European governments and telecom companies, privacy became a common concern among citizens. Just as surveillance legislation in the UK is about to undergo changes, a recent court finding addresses a question on everyone’s mind: does the government have absolute power of surveillance?
British intelligence spied on its citizens for some 17 years. From as early as 1998 until November 2015, MI5, MI6 and GCHQ have been collecting bulk personal and communication data, even on citizens “unlikely of interest.” This contravenes privacy protection laws in the European Convention on Human Rights, the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) ruled.
Hiding behind section 94 of the 1984 Telecommunications Act, the agencies have been illegally storing “biographical details, commercial and financial activities, communications and travel, as well as communications data obtained under s.94 arrangements or by interception under a warrant.” The court’s decision doesn’t mention if the database, containing emails, phone calls and passport data among other information, will be deleted or not.
Although accused of disreputable surveillance methods, British spy agencies have denied breaking human rights legislation, stating their actions have been within the law and justifiable, as only criminals and terrorists had been monitored.
Privacy International, the human rights organization, has expressed concern over the recent discovery, claiming that “even post 2015 bulk surveillance powers are not lawful.”
“There are huge risks associated with the use of bulk communications data. It facilitates the almost instantaneous cataloguing of entire populations’ personal data,” said Millie Graham Wood, Legal Officer at Privacy International. “It is unacceptable that it is only through litigation by a charity that we have learnt the extent of these powers and how they are used.”