GCHQ mass surveillance now lawful
The legal regime overseeing mass surveillance programmes run by GCHQ is now lawful, a body that investigates complaints against intelligence agencies has found.
But the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) said questions remain over whether the systems which oversee the listening post's methods of interception were legal in the past.
Human rights groups Liberty, Privacy International and Amnesty brought a legal challenge against GCHQ following disclosures made by American NSA (National Security Agency) whistleblower Edward Snowden about mass surveillance programmes known as Prism and Tempora.
They argued that GCHQ's methods breached article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), the right to privacy, as well as article 10, which protects freedom of expression.
In a written judgment, a panel of IPT judges said: "We have been able to satisfy ourselves that as of today there is no contravention of articles 8 and 10 by reference to those systems.
"We have left open for further argument the question as to whether prior hereto there has been a breach."
The tribunal judgment added: "Technology in the surveillance field appears to be advancing at breakneck speed. This has given rise to submissions that the UK legislation has failed to keep abreast of the consequences of these advances and is ill-fitted to do so; and that in any event parliament has failed to provide safeguards adequate to meet the developments.
"All this inevitably creates considerable tension between the competing interests and the Snowden revelations in particular have led to the impression voiced in some quarters that the law permits the intelligence services carte blanche to do what they will. We are satisfied that this is not the case."
The majority of IPT hearings are held behind closed doors. No complaint against the intelligence services has ever been upheld.
Amnesty immediately said it would appeal the decision at the European Court of Human Rights - there is no domestic right of appeal.
Amnesty UK's legal advisor, Rachel Logan, said: "The Government's entire defence has amounted to 'trust us' and now the tribunal has said the same.
"Since we only know about the scale of such surveillance thanks to Snowden, and given that 'national security' has been recklessly bandied around, 'trust us' isn't enough.
"We will now appeal to Strasbourg, who might not be as inclined to put their trust in the UK Government given what we know so far."
James Welch, legal director for Liberty, which also intends to appeal to the ECHR, said: "So a secretive court thinks that secret safeguards shown to it in secret are an adequate protection of our privacy.
"The IPT cannot grasp why so many of us are deeply troubled about GCHQ's Tempora operation - a seemingly unfettered power to rifle through our online communications."