Friday, January 24, 2014

Mass-surveillance is illegal

That's the view of the US government's Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board:

The US government’s privacy board has sharply rebuked President Barack Obama over the National Security Agency’s mass collection of American phone data, saying the program defended by Obama last week was illegal and ought to be shut down.

A divided Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, an independent and long-troubled liberties advocate in the executive branch, issued a report on Thursday that concludes the NSA’s collection of every US phone record on a daily basis violates the legal restrictions of the statute cited to authorize it, section 215 of the Patriot Act.

“This program should be ended, allowing for a transition period,” board member James Dempsey said Thursday.

The full report is here, but the short version is that in addition to being illegal, they found that the NSA's mass surveillance had never discovered or disrupted a single terrorist plot. While the board itself has no power to overturn the policy, it should strengthen Congressional efforts to do so.

Meanwhile, over in Europe, the European Court of Human Rights has demanded that the British government justify GCHQ spying, and in particular explain why it does not violate the ECHR's right to privacy:
In a series of questions, the court has asked British ministers to explain why they think Britain's intelligence services have the right to solicit, receive, search, analyse, disseminate and store data intercepted by themselves, or by foreign spy agencies. The court says the UK needs to show this activity is "within the law" and "necessary in a democratic society".

The case refers specifically to two surveillance programmes, Prism and Tempora. Between them, they allow GCHQ and its US counterpart, the National Security Agency to harvest, store and analyse data from millions of phone calls, emails and search engine queries.

In the complaint to the court, the groups argued much of this activity is not underpinned by British law. They said there was no "effective, independent authorisation and oversight" of the programmes. The claim states: "The interception of external communications by GCHQ is an inherently disproportionate interference with the private lives of thousands, perhaps millions of people."

The UK's answers will be interesting. And if they don't give them, they'll lose by default (creating a binding obligation on the UK government to stop the programs). But the Tories would probably try and use that as another example of why they should ditch the ECHR altogether: because it protects the rights of their citizens against government intrusion and tyranny.