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Foreign Office unlawfully gave spooks power to collect personal data for a decade

SAM TOBIN reports from central London

THE Foreign Office unlawfully gave British spooks the power to collect huge amounts of personal information from telecommunications companies for over a decade, the Investigatory Powers Tribunal ruled today.

Campaign group Privacy International has been involved in a long-running legal battle with the Foreign and Home Offices, GCHQ, MI5 and MI6 over the collection and retention of bulk communications data and bulk personal datasets.

Since the September 11 2001 terrorist attacks, the Foreign Office has power to direct snooping agency GCHQ to obtain data from communications companies — but the tribunal found that that power was unlawfully delegated to GCHQ in “most” cases between 2001 and 2012, which gave it “unfettered discretion” as to what to request.

However, the tribunal found that GCHQ’s demands were “clearly necessary in the interests of national security” and did not quash any of the directions made by successive foreign secretaries.

It said that communications companies which were subjected to data requests “would not be in any position to question the scope of the requirement communicated because the [company] would have no knowledge of the limited basis upon which the direction had been made”.

While the judgement found that such a direction was “a carte blanche,” the tribunal ruled that “in practice, it was not treated as such” and emphasised that there was “no evidence that GCHQ ever sought to obtain communications data which fell outside the scope” of a request.

The tribunal unanimously ruled against Privacy International’s challenge to the sharing of bulk data with law enforcement agencies and industry partners, but was split three-two on its challenge to the regime for sharing that information with foreign agencies.

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