Last night, the UK's Investigatory Powers Tribunal ruled that GCHQ had violate the law in a case brought by a consortium of human rights NGOs. "GCHQ's surveillance of two human rights groups ruled illegal by tribunal " screamed the headlines - but the devil is in the details:
The UK government monitoring agency retained emails for longer than it should have and violated its own internal procedures, according to a judgment by the investigatory powers tribunal (IPT). But it ruled that the initial interception was lawful in both cases.
The IPT upheld complaints by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights and the South African non-profit Legal Resources Centre that their communications had been illegally retained and examined. The tribunal made “no determination” on claims brought other NGOs – including Amnesty International, Liberty and Privacy International – implying that either their emails and phone calls were not intercepted or that they were intercepted but by legal means.
So in Britain it is perfectly legal for the government to spy on human rights groups, provided they follow correct procedure about data retention. When the Soviets did that, the UK condemned it. But modern Britain is becoming indistinguishable from the totalitarian states it once purported to oppose, with pervasive surveillance and intelligence operations aimed at those seeking change to policy by democratic means. If UKanians want to keep their democracy, they need to vote out their spies.