Human rights charity Amnesty International has called last week’s Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) “farcical” due to government’s refusal to explicitly confirm or deny surveillance practices.
IPT recently announced that it would be leading a legal challenge against government conducting mass Internet surveillance after Amnesty and privacy campaigners Privacy International and Liberty filed complaints.
This followed the government’s successful attempts to rush the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill – also known as DRIP – through Parliament.
Despite Prime Minister David Cameron claiming that the bill would just protect existing powers, various civil liberties organisations have claimed the new legislation is unlawful.
Though concerned parties directly confronted intelligence agencies MI5, MI6 and the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), no agreement has been reached about whether surveillance practices are lawful or not.
“[The] hearing descended at times into the realms of farce and fantasy – thanks to the government’s insistence they would neither confirm nor deny any of their surveillance activities,” claimed Michael Bochenek, Amnesty’s senior director for law and policy.
“Without being able to deal with concrete examples, discussing the lawfulness of mass surveillance became an exercise in absurdity. We were pursuing our challenge in a legal black hole,” Bochenek added.
Government allegedly monitoring all UK Facebook accounts
Although the government hasn’t revealed the exact extent to which it monitors its citizens, information about certain practices has arisen as a result of the IPT hearing.
A statement from director general of the Office for Security and Counter Terrorism Charles Farr, published by Privacy International, claims “external communications” can be legally intercepted.
External communications occur on social networks such as Facebook and Twitter or web services such as Google and Yahoo – they are defined as external because they occur on web-based platforms in the US.
“Internal communications” on the other hand require a warrant on the ground of suspicion of unlawful activity, whereas external communications can be monitored without warning.
“Intelligence agencies cannot be considered accountable to Parliament and to the public they serve when their actions are obfuscated through secret interpretations of byzantine laws,” claimed deputy director of Privacy International Eric King.
“Moreover, the suggestion that violations of the right to privacy are meaningless if the violator subsequently forgets about it not only offends the fundamental, inalienable nature of human rights, but patronises the British people, who will not accept such as meagre excuse for the loss of their civil liberties,” King added.
Government defends supposed “security practices”
The government has defended itself, claiming that it is not “abusing power,” mass interception of people’s information is “necessary” to protect the UK and “safeguards” are in place to protect innocent people.
During the hearing, James Eadie, representing the government, claimed that “assumed facts” were being dealt with for “good reasons” such as not exposing holes in intelligence systems.