GCHQ Spying Was 'Unlawful for More Than a Decade'

By Tom Pritchard on at

You may have noticed that the past few years there's been a lot of talk about spy agencies keeping tabs on people when they shouldn't. Mostly thanks to Mr Snowden. While our government has been pushing for surveillance laws that assume everyone is a criminal, they keep getting caught out by that annoying thing called 'the law'. It's just been revealed that cyber-spies at the GCHQ spent a decade spying on people when they shouldn't have been.

The Investigatory Powers Tribunal has ruled that a system that let the GCHQ access data from telecoms companies was unlawful. While there was no evidence that the agency had misused the data, the issue was blamed on successive foreign secretaries that delegated control without implementing any sort of oversight.

Post 9/11 security rules gave the foreign secretary the power to tell the GCHQ to access this information, but the Tribunal was critical of the way the government handed on these requests. This was in part due to the fact telecoms providers "would not be in any position to question the scope of the requirement" because they "would have no knowledge of the limited basis upon which the direction had been made".

"In form, the general direction was a carte blanche. In practice, it was not treated as such and there is no evidence that GCHQ ever sought to obtain communications data which fell outside the scope of data which had been sought in the submission to the foreign secretary."

For this reason the tribunal declared all data collection between 2001 and 2012 as unlawful, though noted that improvements had been made "from at least 2014" that meant the foreign secretary was approving the changes to information taken from telecoms companies. [BBC News]