A couple of weeks ago, we reported on a small but important defeat for the UK government when the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) ruled that intelligence sharing between the NSA and GCHQ was unlawful. Now, in a sign that the cracks in the UK’s impenetrable silence on its surveillance activities are beginning to spread, the Guardian reports on the following surprising development:

The regime under which UK intelligence agencies, including MI5 and MI6, have been monitoring conversations between lawyers and their clients for the past five years is unlawful, the British government has admitted.

Here’s why the UK government has suddenly started owning up to these misdeeds:

The admission that the regime surrounding state snooping on legally privileged communications has also failed to comply with the European convention on human rights comes in advance of a legal challenge, to be heard early next month, in which the security services are alleged to have unlawfully intercepted conversations between lawyers and their clients to provide the government with an advantage in court.

Remarkably, the confession has brought with it an unprecedented explanatory statement:

“In view of recent IPT judgments, we acknowledge that the policies adopted since [January] 2010 have not fully met the requirements of the ECHR, specifically article 8 (right to privacy). This includes a requirement that safeguards are made sufficiently public.

“It does not mean that there was any deliberate wrongdoing on their part of the security and intelligence agencies, which have always taken their obligations to protect legally privileged material extremely seriously. Nor does it mean that any of the agencies’ activities have prejudiced or in any way resulted in an abuse of process in any civil or criminal proceedings.”

This surprise admission shows once again the value of taking legal action against government surveillance, even when the odds of succeeding seem slim. Twice now the UK has revealed details purely as a result of challenges. Perhaps even more importantly, twice now the UK government’s standard response to leaks — that it wouldn’t confirm or deny anything, but the British public could rest assured that whatever may have happened was completely legal — has been shown to be false.


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