A British tribunal ruled on Friday that some aspects of intelligence sharing between security agencies in Britain and the United States were unlawful, in a high-profile case brought by civil liberties groups.
The Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) ruled that Britain's electronic intelligence agency, Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ), acted unlawfully in accessing data on millions of people in the U.K. that had been collected by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA), because the arrangements were secret.
The civil liberties groups Liberty, Privacy International, Amnesty International and others brought the case against the British intelligence agency last July in the wake of revelations about mass surveillance by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden in 2013.
It was the first time in its 15-year history that the tribunal — which deals with legal challenges against Britain's three primary intelligence agencies, GCHQ, MI5 and MI6 — issued a ruling that went against one of those agencies.
The tribunal ruled that "the regime governing the soliciting, receiving, storing and transmitting by U.K. authorities of private communications of individuals located in the U.K., which have been obtained by U.S. authorities pursuant to [NSA programs] Prism ... and Upstream" contravened human rights laws.
The organizations that brought the case hailed the ruling as a major victory.
Privacy International director Eric King said the ruling confirmed "what many have said all along. Over the past decade, GCHQ and the NSA have been engaged in an illegal mass surveillance sharing program that has affected millions of people around the world."
However, the tribunal said that GCHQ’s practices were now legal because the lawsuit had made details of the practices and the safeguards on them public. The groups said they would appeal that finding to the European Court of Human Rights.
GCHQ said it was pleased the court had found that it complied with the law. It also said the ruling "does not require GCHQ to change what it does to protect national security in any way."