GCHQ unlawfully given access to our data
By Andrew Merrell | 25th July 2018
For more than a decade successive Foreign Secretaries wrongly gave GCHQ permission to collect vast quantities of our personal information from telecommunications companies.
According to a ruling yesterday (July 24) by the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) granting such unfettered discretion to GCHQ was an unlawful delegation of power from the Foreign Secretary.
However, it added there was no evidence GCHQ had misused the system.
Privacy International, which brought the legal challenge, criticised the sharing of personal data in what it called the "cavalier manner".
Millie Graham Wood, the solicitor acting for Privacy International, said: "The history of the case is living proof of the dangers of closed hearings.
"Without sustained digging, the terms of the directions given to GCHQ to collect our personal data, and the cavalier manner in which it was done, would never have come to light.
"The reality was that the unlawful data collection became plain only once we were given first sight of the orders, called 'directions', and learned that they were drafted so as to provide a broad power to GCHQ itself to decide what bulk data to request.
"This occurred only after the tribunal has issued its first judgment in the case, which had found UK surveillance agencies had collected everyone's communications data unlawfully for over a decade due to the secretive nature of the bulk data regime.
"Once the regime was exposed, it then took sustained digging to get to the real facts, including the 'extraordinary' step of cross-examining a GCHQ witness about contradictory and incomplete evidence."
Security rules introduced after the September 11, 2001, attacks gave the Foreign Secretary power to allow GCHQ to obtain data from telecoms firms with little explanation of what they were asking for.
Ms Wood said: "The Foreign Secretary was supposed to protect access to our data by personally authorising what is necessary and proportionate for telecommunications companies to provide to the agencies."
"The way that these directions were drafted risked nullifying that safeguard by delegating that power to GCHQ - a violation that went undetected by the system of commissioners for years and was seemingly consented to by all of the telecommunications companies affected."
A spokesman for the Government said: "We welcome today's judgment that the security and intelligence agencies' powers are proportionate and comply with the European Convention on Human Rights.
"The security and intelligence agencies are subject to a strict legal framework and robust independent oversight.
"We are proud of the work they do to keep the UK safe within these parameters."
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