Two years after Edward Snowden’s allegations concerning mass surveillance, the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, the UK intelligence agencies complaints tribunal, has ruled that the manner in which the UK’s GCHQ shared intelligence from the US National Security Agency was unlawful.
In a brief ruling that follows a lengthy and more complex one in December, the tribunal at the same time announced its view that previous legal defects have been corrected, and that it is now satisfied that GCHQ is acting lawfully. At least, that is what you might think the IPT has decided. But in the peculiar point at which the law, intelligence and secrecy mix, things are not always what they seem.
Several human rights groups are celebrating a major victory against the Five Eyes, an intelligence alliance comprising Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US, as the UK surveillance tribunal ruled on 6 February that the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) acted unlawfully in accessing millions of private communications collected by the National Security Agency (NSA) up until December 2014.
The decision marks the first time that the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT), the only UK court empowered to oversee GCHQ, the domestic security agency MI5 and the foreign intelligence service MI6, has ever ruled against the intelligence and security services in its fifteen-year history. The case was only possible thanks to the NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden whose leaked documents provided the facts needed to challenge the long-standing intelligence sharing relationship.