Oversight of GCHQ’s mass surveillance programmes is now lawful, a body that investigates complaints against intelligence agencies has found.
Human rights groups Liberty, Privacy International and Amnesty brought a legal challenge against GCHQ following disclosures made by US National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden about mass surveillance programmes either side of the Atlantic known as Prism and Tempora.
They argued that GCHQ's methods breached article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), the right to privacy, as well as article 10, which protects freedom of expression.
The Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) said the legal regime, which oversees the listening post's methods of interception, does not currently infringe those laws, but added that questions remain over whether it was legal in the past.
In a written judgment, a panel of IPT judges said: "We have been able to satisfy ourselves that as of today there is no contravention of articles 8 and 10 by reference to those systems. We have left open for further argument the question as to whether prior hereto there has been a breach."
The majority of IPT hearings are held behind closed doors, though parts of this tribunal were open, and no complaint against the intelligence services has ever been upheld.
The tribunal judgment added: "Technology in the surveillance field appears to be advancing at breakneck speed. This has given rise to submissions that the UK legislation has failed to keep abreast of the consequences of these advances and is ill-fitted to do so; and that in any event parliament has failed to provide safeguards adequate to meet the developments.
"All this inevitably creates considerable tension between the competing interests and the Snowden revelations in particular have led to the impression voiced in some quarters that the law permits the intelligence services carte blanche to do what they will. We are satisfied that this is not the case."
According to Amnesty International the judgment was made on the basis of "hypothetical facts" as the government refused to confirm or deny any of its surveillance practices.
“The government has managed to bluff their way out of this, retreating into closed hearings, and constantly playing the ‘national security’ card. The tribunal has accepted that approach," said Rachel Logan, Amnesty International UK’s legal advisor.
“We have had to painstakingly drag out every detail we could from an aggressively resistant government. The IPT’s decisions – uniquely – cannot be appealed within the UK and this is a disappointing, if unsurprising, verdict from an overseer that was in part assessing itself. The government’s entire defence has amounted to ‘trust us’ and now the tribunal has said the same."
While there is no domestic right of appeal, Amnesty immediately said it would appeal the decision at the European Court of Human Rights.
“Since we only know about the scale of such surveillance thanks to Snowden, and given that ‘national security’ has been recklessly bandied around, ‘trust us’ isn’t enough," said Logan. “We will now appeal to Strasbourg, who might not be as inclined to put their trust in the UK government given what we know so far.”