The campaign group Privacy International has filed a lawsuit to try to force authorities to release the latest details of the Five Eyes surveillance agreement.
The Five Eyes nations – the UK, United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – have an agreement to gather and share intelligence, but the details of this are, unsurprisingly, shrouded in mystery.
The latest publicly available version of the agreement was signed off in 1955.
Privacy International has been waging a campaign to get its hands on a more up-to-date version of this document for years, mainly through protracted Freedom of Information battles in the countries in question. Such requests are futile, as groups like the UK’s GCHQ are usually exempted from FoI laws.
In September 2014, it filed a legal challenge in the European Court of Human Rights, asking for the court to rule that intelligence agencies “should not be entitled to keep the details of such arrangements hidden from the public”.
Its latest move is to take the US authorities to court, filing a federal lawsuit before the US District Court for the District of Columbia that asks for records relating to the current Five Eyes surveillance agreement to be handed over.
The group wants to know what rules govern the authorities’ information exchange, and argue that the 63-year-old document the public currently has access to isn’t very useful in today’s technological age.
The advent of FitBits, cell phones and Google has massively increased the data available, the group said, while the way communications flow around the globe has also changed.
This increased opportunities for governments to capture common or garden communications, and the groups said that the public has a right to know what agreements are in place.
It stressed that it wanted the agreement’s "legal standards and limitations, not operational details".
Privacy International's legal officer Scarlet Kim said: "Key documents, including the current agreement, remain secret, despite being critical to proper scrutiny of US surveillance activities.
"The public has a right to know what rules govern the exchange of information – which may include purely domestic communications and data – through this private pact.”
The group is being represented by represented by Yale Law School’s Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic.
The clinic’s Hannah Bloch-Webha said that without knowing the rules that govern intelligence sharing “it is impossible for the public to know if this secretive surveillance abides by constitutional restrictions”.
She said: “Disclosure of the laws, rules, and regulations that constrain government surveillance is fundamental to basic democratic oversight. The government’s failure to make available even the most basic information about the rules currently in place corrodes public confidence in the rule of law and undermines our democracy.”