UK tribunal rules that GCHQ hacking does not violate human rights

Russell Brandom

The GCHQ has won a major court case in defense of its persistent hacking program. Today, the UK's Investigatory Powers Tribunal declared that the surveillance agency is not in violation of British law, despite a complaint by Privacy International. Launched in the wake of the Snowden revelations, the case alleged that the GCHQ was violating fundamental warrant protections in its persistent surveillance actions. In December, the case made headlines when it led the GCHQ to admit to its persistent hacking programs for the first time.

The ruling codifies the UK system of "thematic warrants," which can be issued to broad classes of people in an open-ended time frame. "What is important is that an application for a warrant contains as much information as possible to enable a Secretary of State to make a decision as to whether to issue a warrant," the IPT found, leaving questions of proportionality up to the Secretary. Still, critics say that decision represents a clear break from the principle of necessary and proportionate authorization, which civil rights groups across the world had pushed for in the wake of the Snowden ruling and has basis in a number of national constitutions.

"There needs to be the most diligent possible protection."

In the ruling, the IPT swept aside those concerns as anachronistic impediments to national security. "Eighteenth Century abhorrence of general warrants issued without express statutory sanction is not in our judgment a useful or permissible aid to construction of an express statutory power given to a Service, one of whose principal functions is to further the interests of UK national security, with particular reference to defence and foreign policy," the ruling reads.

The threat of terrorism was cited as a recurring point in the GCHQ's defense. "The security situation for the United Kingdom, presently described as severe, is such that there needs to be the most diligent possible protection," the ruling reads. "Technological capabilities operated by the Intelligence Agencies lie at the very heart of the attempts of the State to safeguard the citizen against terrorist attack."

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