Privacy priorities: A ruling against mass surveillance is a welcome start


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Never before has the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) ruled against the intelligence services. That the court – which exclusively handles cases brought against the likes of MI5 – set such a precedent yesterday is significant.

It found that the information-sharing relationship between GCHQ and the US National Security Agency (NSA) between 2007 and 2014 amounted to a breach of British citizens’ right to privacy – as set out under the European Convention of Human Rights.

Nonetheless, those who object to mass surveillance of non-suspect individuals – and The Independent is firmly in such a group – would have hoped that the IPT’s use of the word “unlawful”, coming in the context of the interception of emails and phone records, amounted to more. The US’s Prism programme, whose information GCHQ had access to, operates in clear violation of a person’s right to go about their business unwatched. President Obama has admitted as much and made efforts to have it rolled back. Just a single case of terrorist activity being thwarted – Basaaly Moalin, in 2013 – can be cited in defence of the American dragnet surveillance of the phone records of tens of millions.

The IPT’s judgment refers only to the years 2007 to 2014, and now that GCHQ has publicly admitted to the relationship it has with the NSA, all is deemed legitimate. That is why GCHQ felt able to call the ruling a “technicality”. Clearly, the US and UK should share information on terrorist suspects. But so long as the NSA continues to collect metadata on the majority of communications within the US, the British Government should be wary.

The privacy campaigning groups who brought the case against GCHQ will pursue the matter further. They have our support. Mass surveillance is unjustified, unnecessary, and has no place in a free society.