British spooks admit to ‘unlawfully’ collecting data on privacy advocates

GCHQ headquarters in Cheltenham
Mohamed Elmaazi

MI5 admitted to spying on Privacy International (PI) using illegal surveillance powers on 25 September. And the advocacy group says GCHQ and the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), also known as MI6, have too. The admission came at a tribunal investigating complaints against public authorities that “have unlawfully used covert techniques and infringed our right to privacy”. The group, which campaigns for privacy protections, is challenging MI5, GCHQ and the SIS at the tribunal.

Letter to Sajid Javid

PI sent a detailed four-page letter to home secretary Sajid Javid. It demanded an explanation for why security and intelligence agencies “unlawfully held and analysed” its data:

As home secretary, Javid is responsible for overseeing MI5.

Targeted for surveillance

PI told The Canary that MI5 first said it held no information on it. But MI5 now says that the spy agency:

acquired and selected for analysis data relating to Privacy International as part of one or more investigations… This data was stored indefinitely, with no period for its review and deletion.

It doesn’t end there. PI writes:

All three of the agencies held (or, in the case of GCHQ, more likely than not held) data relating to Privacy International in its BPDs [Bulk Personal Datasets] while the BPD regime was unlawful.

The BPD regime collects personal data about tens of millions of people everyday without a warrant. It was unlawful until March 2015.


The Canary asked the Home Office why MI5 was holding data on PI.

A government spokesperson said:

The selection of data for examination from Bulk Personal Datasets and Bulk Communications Data by the security and intelligence agencies is subject to robust legal safeguards and oversight. Such activity is only undertaken where it is necessary and proportionate in accordance with the agencies’ statutory functions.

The Investigatory Powers Tribunal ruled in July 2018 that the security and intelligence agencies’ powers are proportionate and comply with the European Convention on Human Rights.

Unlawful interference

But the European Court of Human Rights disagrees with that assessment. On 13 September, it ruled that the UK’s bulk data collection (exposed by Edward Snowden):

is incapable of keeping the “interference” [into people’s private lives] to what is “necessary in a democratic society”.

It also describes intercepting communications as “one of the gravest intrusions” into a person’s private life.

Spy agencies target anyone and everyone in the UK with little to no accountability. We must end mass warrantless surveillance, if we truly want to live in a free society.

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Write to your MP and demand they bring bulk domestic surveillance to an end.

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Featured image via Flickr

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Mohamed Elmaazi