Privacy International sues UK government over alleged cyber surveillance

8 Jul 2013

UK-registered charity Privacy International has filed a legal challenge against the UK government over the alleged existence of a surveillance system called Tempora that, according to revelations by Edward Snowden, the UK is sharing with other intelligence agencies around the world.

Privacy International is charging that the expansive spying regime is operated outside the rule of law, lacks accountability and is neither necessary or proportionate.

A recent report in The Guardian newspaper claimed an operation code-named Tempora secretly accesses the network of cables which carry the world’s phone calls and internet traffic.

Not only that, according to a report, Britain’s top spy agency GCHQ is processing the vast streams of data and is sharing it with its US counterpart, the National Security Agency (NSA).

Former CIA contractor Snowden claimed GCHQ is able to store enormous volumes of data drawn from fibre-optic cables for up to 30 days. The Tempora programme has been running for more than 18 months and allegedly takes in recordings of phone calls, email message content, Facebook messages and any users’ internet history.

Privacy International is challenging the UK government over its failure to have a publicly accessible legal framework for communications data that is located in the UK and handed over to the NSA via its PRISM programme.

It is also taking the UK government to task for intercepting and storing huge amounts of data by tapping into undersea fibre-optic cables via Tempora.

It cited reports that the UK had access to PRISM since June 2010 and 197 intelligence reports were generated from the system.

“One of the underlying tenets of law in a democratic society is the accessibility and foreseeability of a law,” said Eric King, head of research at Privacy International.

“If there is no way for citizens to know of the existence, interpretation, or execution of a law, then the law is effectively secret. And secret law is not law. It is a fundamental breach of the social contract if the Government can operate with unrestrained power in such an arbitrary fashion. 

“Mass, indiscriminate surveillance of this kind goes against the most basic fundamental human rights to privacy. The scope and scale of this programme, which monitors the entire British public and much of the world, cannot be justified as necessary and proportionate,” King added.

‘The largest programme of suspicionless surveillance in human history’

Bhatt Murphy Solicitors will be acting for Privacy International in the case.

“The UK authorities have been engaged in a regime of surveillance which amounts to a serious and unjustifiable violation of the rule of law: it breaches EU law, and it breaches the rights of the citizen to freedom of expression and privacy as protected by the Human Rights Act,” the solicitor firm said.

Snowden has described the GCHQ as “worse than the US” and the Tempora programme as “the largest programme of suspicionless surveillance in human history.”

The documents are believed to claim that GCHQ produces larger amounts of metadata than the NSA and makes the UK a digital superpower amongst the ‘five eyes’ intelligence alliance comprising the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

It is believed that more than 29bn events in a 24-hour period were recorded, producing larger amounts of metadata collection than the NSA.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years