Yesterday, the UK’s Investigatory Powers Tribunal informed Amnesty International that British intelligence agency GCHQ had spied on the human rights organization by intercepting and accessing its email communications.
Even in light of Edward Snowden’s revelations, this is a stunning development: The UK surveilled one of the world’s largest human rights organizations. We do not know the scale of the surveillance or the reason for it, or even the extent and ways in which Amnesty International communications were accessed for what in US parlance would be termed collection and use. The tribunal judged the UK’s actions to be lawful and proportionate, but we don’t know the basis for its reasoning.
The implications for Amnesty International and human rights work generally are huge and worrisome. Amnesty International researchers document violations by interviewing witnesses and survivors. We are on the ground in conflict zones and in crisis situations. Our sources are taking a risk: If foreign governments or armed groups knew they were speaking to us, it could lead them to be retaliated against, detained, tortured, or even killed. We take precautions to protect the confidentiality of our communications, but we’ve long feared that indiscriminate mass surveillance and extensive intelligence sharing are undermining the effectiveness of our precautions.
So with the UK’s judicial determination, there are several looming questions about the ramifications for our human rights work around the world:
- Is the UK government sharing Amnesty International’s email communications with other governments, and if so which governments?
- And what third party governments are they, in turn, sharing our emails with? Does the UK monitor what foreign governments do with this intelligence?
- What measures does the UK take to ensure that Amnesty International’s email communications about human rights crises and cases — including the trials, detention, disappearances, and abuse of human rights defenders, dissidents, reformists, and members of religious and racial minority groups — do not end up in the hands of the very same abusive governments about which we are reporting?
- In other words, what steps is the UK taking to ensure its “intelligence collection” of our human rights work does not make it a handmaiden to further human rights abuses by the foreign governments with which it shares our communications?
We’re also concerned about the UK’s extensive intelligence-sharing with the US government. Here are just a few of the unknowns:
- Did the US know that the UK was spying on Amnesty International? If such spying included US persons who work for Amnesty International, did the US government know? What about UK spying on communications between Amnesty International Ltd. and Amnesty International’s US-based section? Or between Amnesty International Ltd.’s staff based in the US and colleagues or human rights defenders based abroad, for instance where the communications pass through UK territory?
- Is the US receiving Amnesty International’s email communications or intelligence reports about these communications from the UK? That is, is the US getting a backdoor around any US policies or legal restrictions on spying on human rights groups or US persons?
- Is the effect of the extensive US-UK intelligence sharing arrangement that the US intelligence community has a “head start” on Amnesty International’s reporting about US human rights abuses, including recent reports on US drone strikes in Pakistan, Guantánamo, and torture?
This is all complicated, and we know very little. That’s because while the UK judges haves now effectively confirmed the spying on Amnesty International, nothing has been said about any specifics. The tribunal determined that the intelligence agencies violated time limits for retaining our communications, as set in internal guidance — not because it considered the collection or accessing of communications unlawful.
The UK tribunal originally considered a legal challenge from 10 groups, including Amnesty International, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), and the South Africa’s Legal Resources Centre. In a June 22 decision (explained by Shaheed Fatima here), the tribunal found that only EIPR and South Africa’s Legal Resources Centre had been unlawfully spied upon. In particular, the UK had retained email communication of EIPR beyond the time permitted under internal agency guidelines.
However, the UK tribunal approved the surveillance more generally: It found that EIPR’s email communications were “lawfully and proportionately intercepted and accessed,” meaning among other things that the UK’s intercepting, accessing and storing of the emails pursued a legitimate purpose. There’s no elaboration in the UK tribunal’s opinion, though.
What we learned yesterday is that in fact it was not EIPR, but Amnesty International Ltd. that the UK tribunal found to have been unlawfully surveilled. But it’s important to note that, regarding the eight other human rights groups engaged in the legal challenge, all the UK tribunal has said is that it found no unlawful surveillance: This of course does not give any indication as to whether or not the UK spied on these eight other groups. (Amnesty International and nine other organizations from four continents are currently challenging UK surveillance legislation at the European Court of Human Rights.)
And all of this raises more questions. Among them:
- If the UK tribunal mistook EIPR for Amnesty International, how can its necessity and proportionality analysis be unchanged, and remain valid?
- Is the UK tribunal applying a one-size-fits-all analysis to mass surveillance of human rights and civil liberties groups? Is it indifferent to the specific facts of any given organization?
And that leads to perhaps the most looming question of them all:
- If the UK government believes it can spy on Amnesty International, what groups and individuals does it believe it can’t target for surveillance?