Last December, the IPT (Investigatory Powers Tribunal) ruled that GCHQ’s surveillance programs didn’t violate human rights, despite being broad and untargeted dragnets. This ruling — in response to several legal challenges brought in the wake of the Snowden leaks — was unsurprising. The IPT has overwhelmingly supported GCHQ’s spying efforts in the past, having only sided against it in one-half of one percent of the challenges brought against it.

The IPT’s ongoing support of the UK’s intelligence community is unsurprising. To declare any of its programs as illegal or in violation of citizens’ rights would be to implicate itself for its near-constant approval of surveillance programs. That makes its February decision a bit of an aberration. In response to Privacy International’s legal challenge, it changed course slightly, declaring certain elements of the GCHQ’s spying efforts “illegal” — specifically, information sharing with the NSA. But this was only a partial capitulation. The IPT went on to say that this was once illegal but now was not, thanks to its December 2014 ruling. In some bizarre way, the legal complaints brought against the GCHQ managed to legalize its once-illegal partnership with the NSA.

However, its February decision makes it clear that operations prior to December 2014 were illegal, and provides an opening for UK citizens to force a bit more transparency on their intelligence community.

Because the IPT found the intelligence sharing to be illegal, anyone, inside or outside the UK, can file a complaint to the IPT and ask if their communications were part of that illegal sharing, and be legally entitled to an answer. [Privacy International’s Eric] King explained, “If they don’t find anything, it’s likely they respond ‘no determination’. If they do find something, the IPT is obliged to give a declaration to the individual that their communications were illegally interfered with.”

This is far more transparency than has been granted by the NSA, which still responds to similar inquiries about files on citizens (from those citizens themselves) with its omnipresent Glomar declaration, neither confirming nor denying the collected results of its domestic surveillance programs.

So, anyone in the world will be allowed to ask — and receive an answer — about being swept up in shared GCHQ-NSA dragnets, provided the query only involves shared data and occurred before the IPT’s legalization of this partnership in December of last year. And there are even more restrictions. The data has to be something collected by the NSA and shared with the GCHQ, not vice versa, and must still be retained and accessible at the point the GCHQ receives the inquiry.

While there are many specifics limiting the public’s involvement, there will be no specifics forthcoming from the UK’s spy agencies.

Despite this apparent narrowness, the number of people that could get a yes could be in the hundreds of millions. However, The IPT will not reveal the granularity of information GCHQ kept on you. “People will never find out if it was their phone records that GCHQ had, or just a specific email,” said King, “They only answer they’ll get is a broad one of yes, GCHQ had data about you illegally from NSA.”

Privacy International will be funneling these requests in to the IPT via a submission form at its site. The selectors (email address, name, telephone number) will be handed over to the GCHQ to be used to search for matching, NSA-originated shared data. If found, requestors will be given their detail-free “yes” answer and the illegally-obtained data will be destroyed. It’s not a huge step forward but it’s a start.

What this will do, however, is open up the GCHQ to many more legal challenges — something that may result in even further accountability and curtailing of its powers. Privacy International is basically creating a class action suit against the UK spy agency. It’s not money the group is after, but more transparency. It hopes to force the GCHQ into revealing more details about its domestic surveillance and its partnership with the NSA.

Privacy International’s Eric King admits this won’t be an easy — or short — process. It’s very likely the GCHQ will mount its own challenge against the IPT’s decision, and will resort to its usual opacity and obfuscation to avoid giving members of the public the yes/no answer the tribunal has declared they’re entitled to. (And losing the illegally-obtained data in the process…) But in terms of reactions to the Snowden leaks, this decision (potentially) demands more accountability from the UK’s spy agency than all of the administration’s weak NSA reforms combined.


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