US, UK watchdogs file legal moves to curb government surveillance

Privacy protectors petition Supreme Court, UK tribunal to rein in NSA, GCHQ


Two privacy watchdogs, one in the US and one in the UK, have filed legal actions against their respective governments, petitioning them to curtail - or at minimum uncover - their domestic surveillance operations.

In the US, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) has filed a petition (PDF) with the US Supreme Court, asking the Supremes to vacate what it alleges is "an unlawful order by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that enables the collection of all domestic phone record by the NSA."

The EPIC petition focuses specifically on an order by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) that permitted the FBI and NSA to obtain what EPIC characterizes as "vast amounts of telephone call data of Verizon customers." EPIC is a Verizon customer.

EPIC explains that it finds itself forced to petition the Supreme Court directly because it has no other recourse:

Normally, when a court issues an unlawful order, the adversely affected parties can intervene or appeal to a higher court. However, the FISC and Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review only have jurisdiction to hear petitions by the Government or recipient of the FISC Order. Neither party to the order represents EPIC's interests. As EPIC is not a recipient of the order, it cannot challenge it in the FISC. Other federal and state trial and appellate courts have no jurisdiction over the FISC, and therefore cannot grant relief.

So, to paraphase the ol' Ghostbusters meme, "Who you gonna call? The Supremes!" The EPIC petition requests the Supreme Court to halt the disclosure of details of Americans' telephone usage – specifically those disclosed by Verizon – alleging that the FISC did not have legal authority to compel Verizon to hand that metadata to the NSA.

According to EPIC, the FISC order exceeded the autnority granted to is under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which states that such orders require "reasonable grounds to believe that the tangible things sought are relevant to an authorized investigation."

From EPIC's point of view, the FISC order overreaches. "It is simply unreasonable to conclude that all telephone records for all Verizon customers in the United States could be relevant to an investigation," they say.

In the UK, Privacy International filed a motion in the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) listing as defendants the secretaries of state for the Home Office and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Secret Intelligence Service and Security Service, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), and the Attorney General.

Privacy International describes its action as addressing the UK governments action on two fronts:

Firstly, for the failure to have a publicly accessible legal framework in which communications data of those located in the UK is accessed after obtained and passed on by the US National Security Agency through the Prism programme. Secondly, for the indiscriminate interception and storing of huge amounts of data via tapping undersea fibre optic cables through the Tempora programme.

"One of the underlying tenets of law in a democratic society is the accessibility and foreseeability of a law," said Privacy International research head Eric King. "If there is no way for citizens to know of the existence, interpretation, or execution of a law, then the law is effectively secret."

Secret law is not legitimate law, said King. "It is a fundamental breach of the social contract if the Government can operate with unrestrained power in such an arbitrary fashion."

The Tempora programme to which Privacy International objects is allegedly as indescriminately sweeping as the FISC-ordered provision of telephone metadata to the FBI and NSA. According to the Guardian, 300 GCHQ staff and 250 US NSA analysts pore through vast amounts of private communications coursing through fibre-optic cables linking the UK to the rest of the globe.

"The Tempora programme by its very nature appears to violate the underlying requirement for interception," Privacy International contends, "which requires that surveillance is both necessary and proportionate under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA)."

It is unlikely that either the US Supreme Court or the IPT will be quick to issue a stay on their respective governments' alleged monkeyshines, so you should have plenty of time to plow through Kafka's The Trial while you're waiting for their decisions. ®


Other stories you might like

  • Experts: AI should be recognized as inventors in patent law
    Plus: Police release deepfake of murdered teen in cold case, and more

    In-brief Governments around the world should pass intellectual property laws that grant rights to AI systems, two academics at the University of New South Wales in Australia argued.

    Alexandra George, and Toby Walsh, professors of law and AI, respectively, believe failing to recognize machines as inventors could have long-lasting impacts on economies and societies. 

    "If courts and governments decide that AI-made inventions cannot be patented, the implications could be huge," they wrote in a comment article published in Nature. "Funders and businesses would be less incentivized to pursue useful research using AI inventors when a return on their investment could be limited. Society could miss out on the development of worthwhile and life-saving inventions."

    Continue reading
  • Declassified and released: More secret files on US govt's emergency doomsday powers
    Nuke incoming? Quick break out the plans for rationing, censorship, property seizures, and more

    More papers describing the orders and messages the US President can issue in the event of apocalyptic crises, such as a devastating nuclear attack, have been declassified and released for all to see.

    These government files are part of a larger collection of records that discuss the nature, reach, and use of secret Presidential Emergency Action Documents: these are executive orders, announcements, and statements to Congress that are all ready to sign and send out as soon as a doomsday scenario occurs. PEADs are supposed to give America's commander-in-chief immediate extraordinary powers to overcome extraordinary events.

    PEADs have never been declassified or revealed before. They remain hush-hush, and their exact details are not publicly known.

    Continue reading
  • Stolen university credentials up for sale by Russian crooks, FBI warns
    Forget dark-web souks, thousands of these are already being traded on public bazaars

    Russian crooks are selling network credentials and virtual private network access for a "multitude" of US universities and colleges on criminal marketplaces, according to the FBI.

    According to a warning issued on Thursday, these stolen credentials sell for thousands of dollars on both dark web and public internet forums, and could lead to subsequent cyberattacks against individual employees or the schools themselves.

    "The exposure of usernames and passwords can lead to brute force credential stuffing computer network attacks, whereby attackers attempt logins across various internet sites or exploit them for subsequent cyber attacks as criminal actors take advantage of users recycling the same credentials across multiple accounts, internet sites, and services," the Feds' alert [PDF] said.

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022