On September 25th, UK intelligence agencies admitted to unlawfully spying on the London-based company Privacy International (PI). MI5, MI6, and GCHQ were all involved in the illegal collection and examination of data taken from this company, which advocates for global and personal privacy against mass government and independent surveillance. This is not the first time these secret agencies have been accused of — or tried for — the collection of bulk communications data, or personal datasets, according to Computer Weekly. PI has since requested immediate action be taken by the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT), and that these agencies disclose the reasoning for their actions.
This breach of privacy has understandably led to concerns about the safety and security of the public, and the integrity of higher powers. General Counsel Caroline Wilson Palow of PI released a statement, saying, “Today’s revelations are troubling for a whole host of reasons. The UK intelligence agencies’ bulk collection of communications data and personal data has been shown to be as vast as we have always imagined…”
Edward Snowden, a former CIA employee, now on the run from the US government for releasing top secret information to the public, even took to Twitter to comment, “The UK just admitted the global mass surveillance system was used against civil society — people like you. These programs were never about crime or terrorism, they’re about power. It’s about control.”
It is fairly suspicious that a company warning the public about mass surveillance and advocating the use of safeguards for privacy is the victim of a privacy breach — especially by a higher power acting with authority and access to government information. With the changing times, it is more crucial than ever to have organizations like PI to ensure that someone is looking out for the rights of the people on the ground as technology advances. There needs to be an effort to figure out a system of accountability for governmental institutions. No administration or agency should have unrestricted access to whatever information they want at all times without consequences.
PI was formed in 1990 as a response to increasing awareness about global surveillance and how it interferes with human rights efforts. TIME Magazine documented that at the beginning, PI, then a small charity group, focused primarily on Southeast Asia. The organization truly took off when it began investigating and advocating for security measures in Europe and North America in the early 2000s.
Since then, PI has had numerous altercations with UK intelligence agencies specifically, beginning in 2016 when it was declared by the IPT and reported in The Guardian that intelligence agencies have been illegally collecting citizen data for over ten years. In 2017, PI accused UK intelligence agencies of illicitly sharing potentially sensitive datasets with other departments and foreign intelligence bureaus. Later, the investigation by PI revealed that GCHQ had been storing records of people’s social media accounts without properly divulging the information to authorities. According to Financial Times, in July of 2018, the IPT ruled officially that the government had acted unlawfully by not allowing supervision by the foreign secretary before gathering data on US citizens.
After the injustice that transpired this week, Al Jazeera stated that PI sent UK Home Secretary Sajid Javid a letter detailing what the intelligence agencies had done, and calling for legal repercussions to be enacted. It is unclear whether or not MI5, MI6, or GCHQ will face penalties for spying on PI, or for hoarding bulk databases of citizen information. This issue of mass surveillance is likely one that will not be handled with a simple court case. It could take years to regulate government and agency use of civilian data, and to put further limitations on data collection than were established at the European Convention on Human Rights. The only clear solution is for civil liberties and human rights associations to continue pressing gubernatorial and bureaucratic powers to adhere to guidelines and be transparent in their technological practices.
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