UK spy agencies broke the law to spy on millions of people

18 Oct 2016

Not only did agencies gather data on millions of unsuspecting citizens, they used the data as a private Facebook to spy on colleagues and acquaintances. Image: Petar Paunchev/Shutterstock

UK spy agencies broke surveillance laws to spy on millions of people. The databases were treated like a private Facebook by officers.

A new court judgment found that UK spy agencies, including GCHQ, MI5 and MI6, collected peoples’ communications unlawfully and in secret for 17 years.

Judges at the Investigatory Powers Tribunal – the only court in the UK that hears complaints against MI5, MI6 and GCHQ – found that the security agencies collected vast amounts of data on citizens’ phone and web use for over 17 years.

It is understood they did so without adequate safeguards or supervision.

‘Today’s judgment is a long overdue indictment of UK surveillance agencies riding roughshod over our democracy and secretly spying on a massive scale’

The judgment has been described as one of the most significant indictments of the secret use of the government’s mass surveillance powers since Edward Snowden first began exposing the extent of US and UK spying in 2013.

Human rights abuse

The judges ruled that the data collection activities of the spy agencies breached Article 8 the European Convention on Human Rights which entitles all EU citizens to the right to a private life.

The tribunal revealed that highly sensitive databases were treated like Facebook and staff were able to access data about other members of staff, neighbours, friends, acquaintances, family members and public figures.

It is understood that bulk communications data collection began in March 1998 and was collected illegally until November 2015.

Despite avowals in 2015, after which the activities became legal, the concern is that there are still inadequate safeguards and the privacy of millions of people is at risk.

“We maintain that even post 2015, bulk surveillance powers are not lawful,” said privacy rights group Privacy International.

“As the Investigatory Powers Bill is set to become law within weeks, we argue that the authorisation and oversight regime that was left wanting pre 2015 remains deeply inadequate.”

For example, Privacy International warns that there is no procedure for notifying victims of any use or misuse of bulk communications data.

As well as this, entire databases can be shared with foreign partners, “industrial partners” and other government agencies.

“Today’s judgment is a long overdue indictment of UK surveillance agencies riding roughshod over our democracy and secretly spying on a massive scale,” said Millie Graham Wood, legal counsel for Privacy International.

“There are huge risks associated with the use of bulk communications data. It facilitates the almost instantaneous cataloguing of entire populations’ personal data. 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.

“The public and parliament deserve an explanation as to why everyone’s data was collected for over a decade without oversight in place, and confirmation that unlawfully obtained personal data will be destroyed.”

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