GCHQ monitors bulk information collected by foreign surveillance agencies, including the US’s National Security Agency (NSA), and does so despite not having any sort of warrant, the government has publicly admitted for the first time.
According to documents seen by The Guardian, British intelligence agencies have secret “arrangements” that allow them to access raw material, including communications in bulk.
The practice has been made officially public in documents submitted to UK surveillance watchdog, the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, which is supposed to oversee and approve such activities, following a legal challenge made by privacy groups Privacy International, Liberty and Amnesty International.
Privacy International launched a legal challenge against GCHQ’s extensive surveillance practices earlier this year, arguing that the activities of the government intelligence services breach articles eight and 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
In response to the legal challenge – which was made following the Edward Snowden revelations about international surveillance techniques – the government submitted evidence to the Investigatory Powers Tribunal in which it states that obtaining warrants for data isn’t neccessary in all circumstances.
“[A] RIPA [Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act] interception warrant is not as a matter of law required in all cases in which unanalysed intercepted communications might be sought from a foreign government,” said GCHQ, which argued that the practice doesn’t involve “deliberate circumvention” of RIPA.
The data can initially be stored for two years – the same amount of time that information GCHQ collects itself can be kept – but this can be extended if “senior officials” believe there’s reason to keep monitoring the source of the information.
Naturally, privacy campaigners have been left unimpressed over the confirmation that the government is able to spy on citizens without a warrant being required.
“We now know that data from any call, internet search, or website you visited over the past two years could be stored in GCHQ’s database and analysed at will, all without a warrant to collect it in the first place,” said deputy director Eric King.
“It is outrageous that the government thinks mass surveillance, justified by secret ‘arrangements’ that allow for vast and unrestrained receipt and analysis of foreign intelligence material, is lawful.”
Amnesty International director of law and policy Mike Bostock also voiced his dismay about the latest revelations.
“It is time for the government to come clean on such crucial issues for people’s privacy as the sharing of communications intercepts with foreign governments,” he said, adding that “secret rules are woefully inadequate”.