British intelligence services make dramatic admission in spying case

The building housing the British Intelligence, MI6 is seen by the river Thames in London, Britain. [EPA/FACUNDO ARRIZABALAGA]

The UK intelligence agencies GCHQ, MI5 and MI6 unlawfully captured private data from the UK-based rights charity Privacy International, legal documents published on Tuesday (25 September) reveal, in a move likely to spark fury amongst civil rights campaigners.

Despite repeatedly denying that their Bulk Communications Data (BCD) and Bulk Personal Dataset (BPD) surveillance programmes are ever used against those not suspected of any wrongdoing, British intelligence services admitted that they unlawfully gathered data about Privacy International.

The revelations come a week after a European Court of Human Rights ruling that found GCHQ to have breached human rights in its mass surveillance programme.

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GCHQ, the British government’s intelligence and security organisation, has breached human rights in its mass surveillance programme, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) said in a landmark ruling on Thursday (13 September).

The ECHR found that Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, the respect for one’s private and family life, was violated and no safeguards were put in place to ensure the protection of confidential material that was obtained, breaching Article 10, freedom of expression.

Further to that, on Friday (21 September), Belgian media received reports from the federal prosecutor’s office suggesting that British spies may have hacked into the mainframe of Belgium’s biggest telecommunications operator, Belgacom, over a two-year period between 2011 and 2013.

The Guardian reported that Belgium’s justice minister, Koen Geens, will take the findings to the desk of Prime Minister Charles Michel to discuss the next steps to be taken by Belgium in light of the findings.

In response to today’s announcement, General Counsel at Privacy International, Caroline Wilson Palow, said the revelations were “troubling for a whole host of reasons”.

“The UK intelligence agencies’ bulk collection of communications data and personal data has been shown to be as vast we have always imagined – it sweeps in almost everyone, including human rights organisations like Privacy International.”

We do not know why MI5 reviewed Privacy International’s data, but the fact that it happened at all should raise serious questions for all of us. Should a domestic intelligence agency charged with protecting national security be spying on a human rights organisation based in London?”

Contacted by EURACTIV, the UK’s home office could not provide immediate comment on Tuesday’s announcements. Meanwhile, Privacy International has penned an open letter to Home Secretary Sajid Javid to express their “grave concern” and request “urgent action” following the disclosure.

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The recent findings will yet again bring into contention the UK’s Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, which affords public bodies the freedom to conduct surveillance activities under certain conditions.

RIPA has received widespread criticism after a series of controversies, including a 2008 case in which local council officials took advantage of the provision the regulation allows for in order to spy on a family with three children. Another occurred in 2014, when UK police forces were criticised for using RIPA to acquire information about journalists’ sources.

Wilson Palow was adamant on Tuesday that the government should consider a revaluation of its regulatory powers in the area of mass surveillance.

“Privacy International urges the UK government to critically examine its mass surveillance powers, as enshrined in the Investigatory Powers Act 2016,” she said.

“The UK should be a beacon of light in a world where democracy is under threat. Its refusal to curtail the mass surveillance powers of its intelligence agencies casts a shadow over all of us.”

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