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UK intelligence agencies admit to unlawful surveillance

by Josef Kafka

In recent months, we have seen various government surveillance practices come under intense scrutiny both in the media and in court. This trend continued this week as another ruling declared that recent governmental surveillance practices relating to monitored conversations between lawyers and their clients is unlawful.

For over five years, organisations including MI5, MI6 and GCHQ have been monitoring private conversations between solicitors and their clients, a practice which the UK government has now admitted breaches several human rights regulations and is therefore considered unlawful. Those that brought the case against the government and its security organisations alleged that they monitored these conversations in order to gain an advantage over them in court. 

The challenge was brought by the lawyers of two men who were abducted in a joint operation by MI6 and the CIA, however the government has refused to comment on whether the unlawful practices in question were carried out in relation to these two cases. Additionally, whilst the government did accept that this practice was indeed unlawful, they denied any intent to breach human rights violations, stating that there was never any 'deliberate wrongdoing' and that it never resulted in the 'abuse of process in any civil or criminal proceedings'. In response to this ruling, GCHQ has now published a draft set of guidelines relating to surveillance codes of practice and human rights laws, in order to ensure a breach of this nature does not reoccur.

This ruling follows on from recent developments earlier this month when the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) declared that the sharing of data obtained by the US National Security Agency (NSA) with GCHQ violated Articles 8 and 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which relate to freedom of expression and the right to a private family life. In this case, it was brought to the court that the receipt of data intercepted by the Prism and Upstream surveillance programmes carried out by the NSA, which were first uncovered by whistle blower Edward Snowden, was unlawful. The tribunal did not however, rule that the mass surveillance operations carried out by GCHQ itself could be deemed unlawful, as this 'bulk interception' scheme was established to prevent terrorism and increase the security and safety of UK civilians.

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