Finding out whether GCHQ spied on us gets harder

THE CAMPAIGN to find out whether we as individual journalists have been spied on by GCHQ continues, but things are now a little more complicated. (See the recent petition to the Surveillance Commissioner asking it to reveal whether each petitioner had been spied on by GCHQ here). The Freelance's head hurts trying to keep up with all the latest developments in this area, but we attempt to summarise below.

Why is this important? Protection of sources – and our ability as journalists to continue to persuade sources to talk to us in confidence – is obviously severely compromised once blanket surveillance of absolutely everybody's entire back catalogue of phonecalls, emails and stuff they've ever looked up online is gathered by the intelligence services.

The plan was for Privacy International to do one mass submission on behalf of all the signatories. However, this has been rejected by the Surveillance Commissioner, and Privacy International has contacted all the petitioners to tell them that for the moment they'll need to make submissions individually. Privacy International are trying to develop a web tool that will speed up submissions considerably, meanwhile you can fill out a Human Rights Act complaint to the Surveillance Commissioner re: GCHQ spying on you here. (The Freelance's assistant editor hopes to do this himself soon, and will pass on any tips on filling in the form.)

A separate action by Privacy International and other campaign groups challenging the legality of GCHQ’s surveillance of (potentially) absolutely everybody was dealt a blow when lawyers for the Investigatory Powers Tribunal revealed - days before the hearing was due to start - that the government had quietly amended the Computer Misuse Act to make such surveillance via phone-hacking legal.

Another complaint brought against GCHQ and the UK Foreign Secretary by Privacy International and internet service providers including GreenNet (which host the Freelance) continues.

And LFB member and former Branch Secretary Kevin Cahill is bringing a complaint of his own against GCHQ and the Foreign Secretary that centres on the "criminalisation of journalists", which the Guardian revealed in the Snowden files were a specific category in the US National Security Agency (NSA) "threat list" of groups to be targeted for mass-surveillance under PRISM. Kevin's submission argues that GCHQ authorised the NSA to gather data on UK journalists in breach of the Human Rights Act. (To circumvent UK and US laws on spying on their own citizens, it seems that the NSA and GCHQ did swapsies for each other, arranging to spy on each others’ citizens.)

While the new Tory majority government's attempt to destroy the Human Rights Act seems for the moment to have been seen off, the Queen's Speech announced new legislation that would make blanket surveillance of absolutely everybody completely legal. This was based on a few sentences in the Conservative manifesto, and is already causing alarm among Tory backbenchers. A response from Peers opposed to the planned legislation is imminent, the Freelance understands.

Just as the UK Government seeks to make blanket surveillance legal, a US federal court has ruled that the NSA's blanket surveillance of American citizens was illegal. This was followed by the passage of the Freedom Act through the US Congress, which made blanket surveillance of the phone records and other telecoms intercepts of every American citizen illegal, but the Act doesn't effect the NSA's sweeping up of the data of billions of others who are not US citizens, such as most of us. The Act also seems to codify for the first time the circumstances under which it will be legal for intelligence agencies to gather data on hundreds of thousands of US citizens at a time, based on searches for specific keywords.

Watch this space!

Last modified: 30 May 2015 - © 2015 contributors
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