top secret

A privacy group has filed legal action against the government for conducting mass surveillance on citizens across the UK, including accessing data about people located in the UK that is collected and passed on by the US National Security Agency.

Privacy International, a charity in London that works in the area of privacy, has charged that "the expansive spying regime is seemingly operated outside of the rule of law, lacks any accountability, and is neither necessary nor proportionate."

The claim in the Investigatory Powers Tribunal is based on disclosures through newspaper reports by former NSA contractor, Edward Snowden, about the surveillance programmes of the NSA and British intelligence agency Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ). The tribunal was set up in 2000 to consider complaints about the use of intrusive powers by intelligence services, law enforcement agencies and public authorities.

One of the programmes cited in the complaint is called Prism and reportedly gives the NSA real-time access to the content on servers of internet companies like Facebook and Google. The internet companies have denied their participation in the programme. The other programme referred to in the complaint, called Tempora, is said to be a GCHQ programme for tapping fibre-optic cables and sharing the data with the NSA.

The reports about mass surveillance in the US, UK and some other countries have triggered off a variety of legal actions. In the US, Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) asked the Supreme Court yesterday to throw out an order by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, a secret surveillance court, allowing the NSA to collect all Verizon phone records.

The American Civil Liberties Union also filed a lawsuit in a US federal court last month challenging the legality of the collection of metadata from Verizon customers.

To intercept phone calls, emails, and other communications of individuals located in the UK, or require the disclosure of that information when it is stored by telecommunications or internet companies, UK authorities must comply with the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, according to the complaint from Privacy International. But RIPA does not apply if UK authorities solicit or otherwise receive the information from their US counterparts, even if the communications in question were sent and received in the UK, it added.

The complaint also refers to a news report in the Guardian that under Tempora the GCHQ has intercepted more than 200 fibre-optic cables landing in the UK.

Tempora was purportedly authorised under certificated warrants issued under RIPA that do not have to name or describe any one person or a single set of premises as the subject of the interception, according to Privacy International. The certificates are renewed on a rolling basis by the Secretary of State for the UK Home Office, and do not require judicial authorisation or approval of warrants or certificates.

The effect of Tempora is that all communications using fibre-optic cables are subject to the risk of interception, search and storage, putting at risk of interception all internet and telephone users in Britain and other parts of the world, Privacy International said in the complaint.

The privacy group has asked the tribunal for a declaration that Tempora is in violation of various regulations including RIPA and the European Convention on Human Rights. It has also asked for an order to destroy all unlawfully obtained material. The complaint also cites rights to privacy and freedom of expression in ECHR to ask the tribunal for a declaration against the Secretary of State for not ensuring that there is in place a legal regime governing the soliciting, receiving, storing and transmitting by UK authorities of private communications of individuals located in the UK which have been obtained by US authorities.