Archive for the ‘Intelligence’ Category


European Court rules against UK government in a landmark case

In September 2018, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the UK government’s surveillance activities acted against the human rights of its citizens.  It said the ‘UK mass surveillance programme violated human rights and had no real safeguards in place’.  British intelligence agencies – principally GCHQ – violated the right to a private and family life because there was insufficient oversight over which communications were chosen for examination.

As the Independent newspaper puts it:

Under the guise of counter terrorism the UK had adopted the most authoritarian surveillance regime in Europe corroding democracy itself and the rights of the British public.  13 September

A number of human rights organisations, including Amnesty and Liberty, have been pursuing this case and the result is to be welcomed.  Amnesty were particularly concerned because they themselves were penetrated by GCHQ.  In view of the sensitivity of Amnesty’s work and the contacts with vulnerable people around the world, to find that a government agency was calmly monitoring its work is alarming.  The wholesale nature of the Tempora programme was a shock to many.

What is also alarming is the lack of oversight of the agencies.  Despite, as the New Statesman puts it, an ‘alphabet soup’ of organisations which are meant to be overseeing and monitoring what they are up to, it was the work of journalists and human rights organisations which finally brought the government to account.

For many people this is a matter of little interest.  People often say they are unconcerned if their emails are being monitored and their movements tracked.  ‘If I have done nothing wrong, so what?’ is a common response.  Likewise, the discovery that people were being manipulated using Facebook over the Brexit vote has evoked little real interest.

For those who have lived in an authoritarian state on the other hand, and have experienced first hand what it’s like to be subject to constant and intrusive surveillance, the reaction is likely to be different.

When Britain leaves the EU, the current government was determined to remove us from the aegis of the court and to abolish the Human Rights Act.  This was a manifesto promise.  That position has shifted during the Brexit negotiations and we will continue to be subject to its jurisdiction.  This has infuriated that section of the Conservative party who do not wish to be controlled by ‘foreign courts’ as they put it.

This ruling emphasises how important it is that we stay within the ECHR.  Clearly, parliament, MPs and various oversight agencies failed in their basic duty of oversight.  There is a legitimate desire to detect terrorists and those who wish to do harm to the country or individuals within it.  This is written in Salisbury where the attempted murder of two Russians by agents of the GRU is a case in point.  We rely on the various state agencies to keep watch over individuals with malign intent.  But is has to be targeted and subject to oversight.  We give up a bit of our liberty and freedom because we want to be safe.  It does not mean giving a free hand to collect any information that GCHQ feels it needs in a kind of fishing expedition.  We also rely on parliament to keep and eye on the executive and its agencies to see that they are properly monitored and behaving responsibly.  They fail in that.

This ruling is welcomed and we now need to hear from government what measures they are going to adopt to put matters right.  We also rely on the opposition to ask questions of the government and to keep their feet to the fire.

Sources: the Independent; the New Statesman; the Guardian; Amnesty International 

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Teresa May, Home Secretary

Teresa May, Home Secretary

The government announced its fifth attempt to introduce the snooper’s charter in the Queen’s Speech a few weeks ago.  Called the Investigatory Powers Bill, it looks to be more wide ranging than was previously expected.  Most people seem to be quite relaxed about this.  There few signs of a grass roots campaign taking place and there do not seem to many letters to national papers on the subject.

In conversation people will say things like ‘if they want to listen in to me chatting to a friend they are welcome’ and ‘I’ve got nothing to hide’ is a popular refrain or they accept that it is a price we have to pay for increased surveillance of terrorist threats.  Some do not believe it possible with the millions, nay billions of emails; phone calls; Skype sessions; tweets and so forth, that it would ever be possible for the security services to do this, perhaps not understanding that it is metadata they are after.

There are few who would disagree with the need for our security services to look out for possible terrorist threats or indeed other major crime activities such as people or drug smuggling.  The justification by ministers for the need for increased surveillance has been based on the fear of terrorist activity especially after the terrible outrage on 7/7 almost 10 years ago.

At the heart of the debate is the issue of trust.  We cannot know much of what the security services do for fairly obvious reasons and this means the notion of transparency does not have much relevance.  We want to trust however that the intelligence services do the right thing to protect us.  We want to trust them to be concerned with terrorists and serious crime.  We would like to be reassured that someone is in overall control who is able to ask the relevant questions.  It is here that there is a problem: namely if you ask people ‘do you trust politicians?’ you are likely to receive a dusty answer.  The sweeping powers demanded by ministers and in turn the intelligence agencies, gives them considerably increased powers to pry into our lives.  The powers are sweeping in nature and in effect treat everyone as a suspect.

The report by David Anderson QC published this month is entitled ‘A Question of Trust’ tackles this issue head on.  There have been a succession of scandals over the years which mean trust in politicians and those at the top of our society is extremely low.  The Leveson enquiry revealed an unholy alliance between senior Metropolitan Police officers and sections of the media.  Anderson proposes that oversight shall not be by politicians but by senior judges.  Many would agree with this.

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence.  UN Declaration of Human Rights

The whole issue of trust emerged on 15 June with the results of the investigatory powers tribunal into

GCHQ

GCHQ

GCHQ.  It emerged that this agency has been covertly monitoring two human rights organisations, one in South Africa and one in Egypt.  The case was brought by Privacy International, Amnesty International, the American Civil Liberties Union and Liberty.  It made ‘no determination’ on whether GCHQ intercepted these latter organisations illegally.  It is left open therefore whether they (we) are being monitored and their messages being intercepted.

So while ministers talk of terrorist threats to gain support for ever widening intrusion, their agencies intercept and monitor journalists, whistleblowers, human rights groups and defence lawyers in what has been termed a ‘scandalous misuse of terrorism legislation’*.  Sir Tim Berners-Lee has observed that ‘the UK has lost the high moral ground and is doing things even the NSA weren’t’.  We need to be extremely concerned at the government’s proposals.

Sources:

Liberty; Amnesty International; The Spectator*; The Guardian


A significant step forward was made today against the excessive and arguably illegal interception of messages by the secret services and in particular, GCHQ. The hoovering of email, Skype, Facebook and other electronic messaging services was indiscriminate and is likely to have been illegal. Assurances that this surveillance is tightly controlled have been shown to be untrue.

wire tap imageThe ruling by the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) – a secretive legal body responsible for monitoring the shadowy world of the UK secret services – said that GCHQ’s access to (and use of) private communications swept up in bulk by the National Security Agency (NSA) breached human rights laws. This is the first time in its 15-year history that the IPT has ruled against an intelligence agency. The landmark verdict proves that mass surveillance sharing on such an industrial scale was unlawful, and a violation of our rights to privacy and to free expression.

Liberty, Privacy International and Amnesty, brought the case against the agencies, following the disclosures about mass surveillance made by whistleblower Edward Snowden in 2013. Thanks to Snowden’s revelations, the world is now aware of the extraordinary scale on which US and UK security services intercept and store our digital communications, including emails, messages on social networks and internet histories.

That includes not just the UK getting hold of what the US has picked up in its ‘Upstream’ and ‘PRISM’ programmes (which can cover Google, Facebook and other US-based internet platforms), but the UK’s very own ‘full-take’ Tempora system, which scoops up every single communication that passes through the UK. It’s very possible that highly sensitive communications between activists around the world have been monitored as part of these programmes. It also seems that journalists have been monitored as well as lawyers’ communications with their clients.

The IPT’s ruling acknowledged that the sharing of these communications between the US and UK governments violated human rights law until the end of last year. But even now the UK government will not publicly accept that these mass surveillance programs even exist.

The government has been playing a cat and mouse game over surveillance – talking about ‘national security’ while trying to cover up unlawful behaviour in its use of private data.

Secret rules about secret practices

Before this case was brought, there was simply no public information whatsoever about how and when the UK thought it could handle the data which the US had obtained. We had to force them to disclose what turned out to be a puny two-paragraph public summary of those rules during the case.  Due to that disclosure, the IPT ruled in December that the sharing of surveillance date between the UK and US is now lawful because there is supposedly enough ‘signposting’ in public about what is going on ‘below the waterline’.

So, that means up until that disclosure, the spying programme broke the law – but because they revealed a few vague details of how they gather and store that information – it’s now legal for them to continue doing so.

 Amnesty International strongly disagree with this decision.

Those forced disclosures made by the government are insufficient and fall far short of making its activities lawful.  We won’t stop here – we are planning to challenge the earlier ruling at the European Court of Human Rights.  But until then, while we’re pleased to see it acknowledged the programme has been unlawful up until very recently, the ruling means that the two spy agencies will retain unrestricted access to global communications with minimal safeguards in place.

We have argued before on this site that we accept that intelligence agencies have to intercept messages in their fight against terrorists and others bent on doing us harm. This interception must be under political control and scrutiny and done on a needs must basis. We also expect the media to keep a close eye on the politicians not least because trust in them is so low.

But what seems to have happened is that scrutiny consists of chats between the Security Commission and the security agencies and that there is a failure by the parliamentary committee to ask searching questions. The press have been largely silent and ineffective. It is no surprise therefore that the general public remain unconcerned about the activities of the security services. ‘I’ve got nothing to hide’ is a popular response. People seemed relaxed to see a reduction in their privacy to secure an imaginary increase in their security. Stories are frequently told of terrorist plots being uncovered by the use of such methods.

The bizarre thing is that if one asks the question of someone ‘do you trust politicians?’ you are likely to receive a ribald answer (or a black eye). Yet we seem to.

Paris

Posted: January 10, 2015 in Intelligence, stop torture
Tags: ,

The world has been shocked by the events in #Paris and the murder of journalists and cartoonists at the offices of Charlie Hedbo.  It was an appalling attack of freedom of speech and the right of journalists to be rude and to attack politicians, religions and all those in positions of power.  We pride ourselves on our ability to speak reasonably freely and we cherish the right to say what we like about all manner of topics.  This right is limited of course by laws of defamation and such matters as not stirring up racial hatred.  But lampooning or satirising power in all its forms does not in any way justify going into someone’s offices and gunning them down in a cold blooded attack.

But at times like this we have to be careful that those who wish to limit our freedom in different ways do not use these frightful and frightening events to seek greater powers to control our lives.  It was no doubt a complete coincidence that Andrew Parker, the head of MI5, gave a speech the day after the Paris massacre arguing for yet more powers.  The claim is that they needed these powers to tackle the increased risk of terrorist attacks in this country.  In similar vein, the ‘snooper’s charter’ is back in the frame with the Home Secretary trying to reintroduce it.

We have to be very careful however not to lose basic liberties because of knee jerk reactions to events such as the Paris massacre.

We all of us want to be safe and we are happy to allow the security services to go about their business to keep us so.  There is however a risk of ever greater intrusion and surveillance which can be misused to do things which are nothing to do with defeating terrorism.  Revelations about the miner’s strike¹ where the security services were involved in framing Arthur Scargill and the role of the government of the day’s involvement in that, are a reminder that we need to keep a careful watch on their activities.  Levenson showed the unholy alliance between the Metropolitan police and the press with information being sold by corrupt police officers.  Undercover police officers are another example.

There is – or should be – a kind of contract in place.  We say to the security services that we accept that if they have concerns about an individual or group of individuals, then they can intercept messages, emails, post and such like to find out what is happening.  But there must be some political oversight to this.  The Home Secretary should issue warrants and a close watch kept on the results.  The Intelligence and Security Committee must also keep a watchful eye on our behalf.  Another link in the chain is the press who should be keeping a critical eye on the politicians.

The Snowden revelations showed the huge extent  of existing penetration of communications by GCHQ in the UK and the NSA in America.  Names of all sorts of programs were revealed showing the shear scale of penetration.  Of course this does not mean that everyday conversations are being listened to: that is impossible.  But meta-data is collected and phone and email records are matched up to link individuals together who might be involved in potential criminal activity.  Through all this hardly a word was seen in our media about it.  After Snowden, there was scarcely any coverage in our press (in the UK) with the sole exception of one newspaper.  The BBC and other broadcasters were largely silent.

It seemed to be a shock also to the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) chaired by Sir Malcolm Rifkind.  Sir Malcolm’s shortcomings and seeming blindness cannot be expressed any better than this quote from the Guardian (14 December 2014) following the torture allegations:

[…] Malcolm Rifkind, who chairs the ISC, cannot by any figment of the imagination be deemed independent, nor is his committee. Why is this discredited committee allowed anywhere near an investigation into the spy agencies and torture?  Nick Clegg says he wants to know the truth about torture.  What is desperately needed is the appointment of a respected and credible panel of independent people to seriously investigate what GCHQ has been up to while hiding behind the NSA cloak of subterfuge.’

The Committee has failed to investigate, or show proper oversight, of the security services and their wholesale penetration activities, rendition or the contracting out of torture to countries such as Libya.  Thus a key link in the chain is not there.  The Committee is not fit for purpose.  The near silence of the press is also disappointing.  The tabloid press repeated the need for greater intrusion with little sign of critical analysis.

We all want security but as everyone has said following the Paris outrages, we live in a free society.  The intelligence services have an important role to play but we must not lose our liberties in a panic reaction to those events.

1. see The Enemy Within by Seumas Milne, Verso, 2014


There were announcements by Theresa May, the Home Secretary, and by the Prime Minister last week saying that the terror threat has been raised to ‘severe,’ one down from the highest.  This came about following news that people have been leaving this country to fight for the #IslamicState formerly known as #ISIS.  Some are said to be returning and having been radicalised, pose an increased threat to this country.

A package of anti-terrorism measures are currently being worked on for presentation to Parliament when it reconvenes.  The decision was taken following advice from the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre.

Governments – and ours is no different – are frequently looking for more powers especially of an intelligence nature.  They want to demonstrate that they care for our safety and it is a way to be seen to take action.  The fact that inaction has been clear in terms of what is going on in Iraq and our policy towards it doesn’t seem to matter: at home new powers are needed and MPs will no doubt airing their views inside and outside the House of Commons.

Are these extra powers really needed?  The government and its agencies already have a huge armoury of powers at their disposal enabling them to intercept messages, phone calls, internet traffic, emails and so forth.  As has been shown, there is too little control being exercised by parliament over this activity and the key committee had little idea of the scale of it.

These proposals, combined with the parallel plans to make people stateless, show that there is a degree of knee-jerk reaction to events in Iraq.

The worry has to be that the proposals will represent a further erosion of our liberties.  Once the new powers are enshrined into law and the terror threat is reduced, will they be removed?  Unlikely on past form and they will have represented a ratcheting up of intrusion into our lives.

Our liberties and freedoms were hard won and we need to be especially vigilant when governments seek to limit or curtail them.  It will be interesting to follow the debate when it happens.

 


Last week, the Government announced that the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill (DRIP) #DRIP is to be rushed through Parliament with almost no time for debate.  Various human rights groups, including Amnesty International, have launched a case against the Government to the Investigatory Powers Tribunal.

Why the panic?  The need for a law arose because the European Court of Justice in April nullified existing data retention powers.  The obvious question therefore  is why wasn’t something done before?  David Davies MP has called this rush to legislate ‘a theatrical emergency’.  Tom Watson MP said it was a ‘stitch up.’

wire tap imageThe Snowden revelations have shown the extent and reach of interception by the Government to be on an enormous scale.  Over half a million requests for data have been made.  It was revealed that RIPA — the act which is supposed to limit how much snooping can go on — is widely sidestepped because emails, Skype calls, Facebook messages and tweets are routed through American servers and are thus exempt.  Cables which carry traffic across the Atlantic are tapped by GCHQ.

In parallel with this panic legislation, is the scandal concerning alleged child abuse activity in Parliament.  Here, the files have disappeared or have been shredded.  In recent years we have had the expenses scandal, the Leveson enquiry which exposed serious wrongdoing in the Metropolitan police, government and the Murdoch group and now the child abuse allegations. Files possibly revealing extraordinary rendition flights to Diego Garcia are also believed lost.

Yet we are invited to give the government more — or rather reinstate — powers lost because of the CJEU judgement.  It is to be hoped that even at this late stage, parliament will act to prevent further intrusions into personal liberty in the name of catching ‘terrorists, serious and organised crime and paedophiles’.  Interesting that arms dealers were not on the list.

It may be worth recalling the words in a report by the International Commission of Jurists, the Geneva based NGO, which carried out a three global study on the ‘War on Terror’.

In the course of this enquiry, we have been shocked by the extent of the damage done over the past seven years by excessive or abusive counter-terrorism measures in a wide range of countries around the world.  Many governments, ignoring the lessons of history, have allowed themselves to be rushed into hasty responses to terrorism that have undermined cherished values and violated human rights.  The result is a serious threat to the integrity of the international human rights legal framework.’

These words are echoed by Dame Stella Rimington the former head of MI5:

”[the Government] … attempt to pass laws which interfere with people’s privacy … it would be better that the Government recognised that there are risks, rather than frightening people in order to be able to pass laws which restrict civil liberties, precisely one of the objects of terrorism: that we live in fear and under a police state.’

Ray Corrigan, Senior Lecturer in Technology with the Open University, writing in Open Minds said;

I would argue there is no balance to be achieved between ‘individual right to privacy and the collective right to security’ [quoting Malcolm Rifkind, chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee].  The collective right to security requires an individual and collective right to privacy.  It is fundamentally incompatible with the rule of law – and a healthy society – to collect information about every member of the population in the hope of conducting post hoc fishing expeditions to look for evidence of misbehaviour. 

At present, the public are surprisingly relaxed about this continuing and increasing intrusion.  If however, a policeman turned up at someone’s doorstep, without a warrant or any reason or cause, and insisted on searching the house and looking through personal documents, there would be an outcry.  Protestations by the policeman that the person ‘might be a terrorist or paedophile’ would be swept aside in a torrent of media and public fury.  MPs would rush to the airways to express their concern and the prime minister would be challenged about it at PMQ.  Yet the routine interception of emails and the like evince almost no concern.  Only a handful of MPs are likely to vote against the Government.  Yet ultimately, what is the difference between a policeman on the doorstep and the state bugging your phone?

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