Privacy International, a London-based group of activists, has sued the British government over the U.S. PRISM program and the U.K.’s own Tempora scheme, which taps major internet cables around the world.
The suit comprises two strands: the lack of a “publicly accessible” legal framework for the NSA spying on British citizens then sending the resulting data to the U.K. authorities — something that would be clearly illegal if the British did it to their own citizens — and the illegality of Tempora.
According to Privacy International, the PRISM data-sharing means the U.K. government runs an unaccountable surveillance regime that contravenes the European Convention of Human Rights, which gives EU citizens a right to privacy and personal communications, as well as a right to freedom of expression.
As Privacy International research chief Eric King put it:
“One of the underlying tenets of law in a democratic society is the accessibility and foreseeability of a law. If there is no way for citizens to know of the existence, interpretation, or execution of a law, then the law is effectively secret. And secret law is not law. It is a fundamental breach of the social contract if the Government can operate with unrestrained power in such an arbitrary fashion.”
Meanwhile, Tempora is being challenged as a violation of U.K. bugging law.
It is becoming increasingly apparent that secret data-sharing as a means of circumventing public law is a common feature of PRISM, Tempora and other such schemes. On the weekend, the German magazine Der Spiegel carried fresh claims from whistleblower Edward Snowen about the German intelligence services being “in bed” with the NSA. Germans, who have endured both the Gestapo and Stasi, are highly sensitive about privacy, and these revelations could prove explosive there just weeks ahead of a federal election.
Europe has centralized rules on data protection (to a degree) but national security is left to individual countries. For that reason, the European Commission may have limited powers in cracking down on the actions of intelligence agencies, and legal actions such as Privacy International’s will be necessary in order to hold governments to account — or at least to try to do so.
Privacy International must be hoping its suit proves more successful than the U.S. equivalent, in which the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) seems to have hit a wall of silence.