Privacy International has stepped up its battle against GCHQ, and yesterday filed an official legal challenge to the spy agency's mass snooping on net users.
Emboldened by new restrictions to the similar programme run by America's National Security Agency (NSA), PI filed the complaint in the UK’s Investigatory Powers Tribunal.
According to PI, the “bulk collection of phone records and harvesting of other databases, from millions of people who have no ties to terrorism, nor are suspected of any crime” must stop.
PI said that GCHQ is starting to see itself as “above the law”.
In March, Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) report confirmed that GCHQ was acquiring large datasets containing millions of records pertaining “to a wide range of individuals, the majority of whom are unlikely to be of intelligence interest".
The committee stopped short of condemning the practice, saying that the UK’s intelligence and security agencies were not deliberately seeking to circumvent the law. It did, however, call for laws to be strengthened to regulate the activities of spy agencies and provide greater transparency.
PI essentially wants the same thing.
“There are no legal penalties for misuse of this information, and abuse of the data has already happened with the ISC finding that agencies 'had disciplined – or in some cases dismissed – staff for inappropriately accessing personal information held in these datasets',” said Eric King, deputy director of Privacy International.
“Secretly ordering companies to hand over their records in bulk, to be data-mined at will, without independent sign off or oversight, is a loophole in the law the size of a double-decker bus," he added.
"How can it be that the US is so much further ahead on this issue? With the USA Freedom Act now passed, the equivalent NSA power has now been curtailed before the debate this side of the pond has even begun,” said King, echoing Edward Snowden, who last week told Amnesty International that the UK surveillance landscape is potentially now more worrying than the US one.
The databases that GCHQ could potentially access through their snooping are vast, including telco records held under DRIPA (Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act) and PNR (Passenger Name Record) data.
PI, along with co-complainants Liberty and Amnesty International, is currently awaiting a ruling from the European Court of Human Rights on a separate case against GCHQ's surveillance and intelligence sharing practices. ®