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U.K. Judges Rule in Favor of Spying Program
From the Wall Street Journal of Fri, 05 Dec 2014 15:17:44 EST
Privacy and human rights organizations filed complaints shortly after Edward Snowden, shown on a livestream from Moscow on Dec. 1, leaked information about a British intelligence program code-named Tempora.
Privacy and human rights organizations filed complaints shortly after Edward Snowden, shown on a livestream from Moscow on Dec. 1, leaked information about a British intelligence program code-named Tempora. Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

LONDON—A British judicial panel Friday ruled that the U.K.’s surveillance practices exposed by former U.S. government contractor Edward Snowden are legal, marking a preliminary victory for the British government in the first legal challenge in the U.K. of its controversial spying program.

The case, brought by human rights and privacy organizations, is part of an debate in the U.K. and other Western countries about the balance between the right to privacy and security.

The Investigatory Powers Tribunal, an independent body that hears complaints about government surveillance, dismissed the claims by the groups that British practices of mass interception of electronic communications and the sharing of information with U.S. spy agencies contravened the European Convention of Human Rights.

In its ruling, the tribunal said there were enough safeguards in place and the law was sufficiently clear on spy agencies’ powers. The panel didn’t rule on whether the mass surveillance techniques were proportionate. Since it was formed in 2000, the tribunal has rarely ruled against government use of surveillance.

Several of the groups, including Amnesty International and Privacy International, said they would take their case next to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France. Eric King, deputy director at Privacy International, said the tribunal’s ruling was “a worrying sign for us all.”

The privacy and human rights organizations filed complaints shortly after Mr. Snowden, a former U.S. National Security Agency contractor, leaked information about a British intelligence program code-named Tempora, which intercepts emails and other online communications carried by fiber optic cables.

In an unusual move for the typically secretive court, five of the six days of testimony in the case that was heard over the summer were held in public. The tribunal granted the request by the human rights groups that it be heard in public. The case was argued on a hypothetical set of facts, assuming Tempora existed as Mr. Snowden laid out. British security services haven’t directly acknowledged Tempora’s existence, but a report issued last week by a parliamentary committee said the government had those capabilities.

The case provided a rare window into the view of Britain’s communications intelligence agency, known as GCHQ, of the bulk collection of data from citizens. The government’s lawyers said under U.K. law intelligence agencies can look at U.K. citizens’ Google searches that were deemed to be sent to a server outside the country, as well as Facebook messages where one party was outside the country, using broad warrants that don’t require a target be identified by name. That is a lower threshold than intercepting communications within the U.K., which under British law require a named person or place as the target.

British government officials have in recent months publicly defended the bulk collection of personal data, saying it doesn’t constitute “mass surveillance” because only a small percentage of emails, texts and other electronic communications could be monitored. And, of those, only a very small percentage of interceptions are stored for a limited period and of that, a small percentage is viewed or listened to, they say.

Home Secretary Theresa May recently told a panel of lawmakers that the collection of data was necessary to allow intelligence agencies to operate successfully to counter terror and other threats.

“We are subject to a significant threat and it is right that government takes the action necessary to protect citizens and the right to life,” Mrs. May told the panel during an October appearance.

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