GCHQ didn't illegally spy on Brit NGOs, tribunal rules

But spooks behaved unlawfully with intercepted data of two foreign outfits

GCHQ Benhall doughnut aerial view

Privacy International and Liberty failed today to convince the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) that GCHQ had unlawfully intercepted the communications of, and snooped on, UK-based human rights groups.

The IPT, in its third and final judgment relating to the spying activities of Blighty spooks, said in its ruling on Monday that "no determination" had been made in favour of the UK claimants in the case.

However, it found that GCHQ had acted unlawfully with the handling of communications data it had secretly slurped from two foreign civil liberties outfits.

In the first instance, Blighty's spies used RIPA to "lawfully and proportionately" intercept and access the email comms of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. The IPT added, however, that GCHQ held onto the information "for materially longer than permitted" under UK law's data retention policies.

It ruled that British spies had breached Article 8, under the European Convention on Human Rights.

As a result of that decision, GCHQ has been ordered to destroy any of the comms data that it had retained for longer than the retention limit.

UK spooks have been given 14 days to respond to the Tribunal's demands, at which point GCHQ will be required to submit a "closed report confirming that the destruction and deletion of the said documents has effectively been carried out," the IPT said.

The Tribunal additionally ruled that the sixth claimant in the case – the Legal Resources Centre in South Africa – had similarly seen its rights violated under Article 8 of the ECHR.

While it was ruled that GCHQ had lawfully and proportionately intercepted the group's communications, the IPT said "the procedure laid down by GCHQ’s internal policies for selection of the communications for examination was in error not followed in this case." It added:

The Tribunal is satisfied that no use whatever was made by the intercepting agency [GCHQ] of any intercepted material, nor any record retained, and that the sixth claimant [The Legal Resources Centre in South Africa] has not suffered material detriment, damage or prejudice as a result of the breach.

In those circumstances, the Tribunal is satisfied that the foregoing open determination constitutes just satisfaction, so there will be no award of compensation.

Since no record was retained, there is no cause for ant order for destruction.

Both claimants can make a complaint under s.65 of RIPA, the IPT said.

Spooks: In your face, NGOs

In response to today's ruling, GCHQ said:

We welcome the IPT's confirmation that any interception by GCHQ in these cases was undertaken lawfully and proportionately, and that where breaches of policies occurred they were not sufficiently serious to warrant any compensation to be paid to the bodies involved.

GCHQ takes any error of procedure very seriously. It is working to rectify the technical errors identified by this case and is taking steps to continuously improve its processes in future.

Privacy International's deputy director Eric King said:

“Trying to pass off such failings as 'technical', or significant changes in law as mere 'clarifications', has become a tiring defence for those who know the jig is up.”

He added: "The courts are helping to ensure that the sun is slowly setting on GCHQ's Wild West ways. Now we need Parliament to step in to fix what should have been fixed a long time ago."

Step right this way for the latest ruling (PDF). ®

Bootnote

The IPT has a handy table on its website explaining what its verdicts mean. "No determination in favour of complainant" doesn't mean that spying didn't take place: rather, it means either that no spying took place, or that spying did take place and it was legal.




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