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GCHQ 'broke rules' when spying on NGOs

GCHQ radar domes Image copyright Getty Images

British intelligence agency GCHQ did not follow proper procedures when collecting information on two international NGOs, the Investigatory Powers Tribunal has said.

The IPT said rules had been broken in relation to the handling of data that had been intercepted.

However, it said the initial collection of information had been within the law.

The action was brought by NGOs (non-governmental organisations) including Amnesty and Privacy International.

They, along with the American Civil Liberties Union and others, accused the intelligence agencies of intercepting their communications.

There was no determination in most of the cases under consideration. This means either they were not spied on or if they were, then no rules were breached.

But in the case of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) and South Africa-based The Legal Resources Centre, the Tribunal ruled that GCHQ had not followed proper internal procedures.

Data storage

The tribunal found that the EIPR's communications had been lawfully intercepted but the data had been stored for longer than it should have been.

In the case of the South African NGO, the tribunal said it was satisfied that the interception itself had been lawful but GCHQ internal policies for examining those communications had not been followed.

In both cases, the tribunal said there had not been material damage and so no compensation had to be paid.

But in the Egyptian case, it required GCHQ to confirm within 14 days that the relevant documents had been deleted.

This was the third and final judgment on challenges raised by the NGOs, to the lawfulness of the UK's bulk interception powers and of the intelligence-sharing arrangements between the UK and the US National Security Agency.

Image copyright AP

A government spokesman said: "We welcome the IPT's confirmation that any interception by GCHQ in these cases was undertaken lawfully and proportionately, and that where breaches of policies occurred they were not sufficiently serious to warrant any compensation to be paid to the bodies involved."

He added: "GCHQ takes procedure very seriously. It is working to rectify the technical errors identified by this case and constantly reviews its processes to identify and make improvements."

Eric King, deputy director of Privacy International said: "Make no mistake, these internal failures will not be limited to just these instances.

"Trying to pass off such failings as 'technical', or significant changes in law as mere 'clarifications', has become a tiring defence for those who know the jig is up."

A report by David Anderson, the independent review of terrorism legislation, published this month, called for an overhaul of the laws surrounding the interception of communications including by GCHQ, arguing that their lack of transparency made them "undemocratic".

The new laws would include stricter safeguards regarding the authorisation of intelligence activities.

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