Seven communications providers say the British intelligence agency is damaging their business
Seven Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have filed a legal complaint against GCHQ, accusing the British intelligence agency of exploiting their infrastructure and violating the privacy of their customers.
These include companies from the UK, US, Germany, South Korea, Netherlands and Zimbabwe. The legal action is supported by the London-based charity Privacy International, which has filed two similar complaints against GCHQ in the past.
The ISPs allege that the agency’s surveillance practices, first revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden last year, had a serious impact on their business and relationship with the customers.
“People have a fundamental right to communicate with each other free from pervasive government surveillance,” said Devin Theriot-Orr, a spokesman for Riseup.net, a US-based ISP. “The right to communicate, and the ability to choose to do so secretly, is essential to the open exchange of ideas which is a cornerstone of a free society. GCHQ must stop its illegal monitoring activities.”
Strength in numbers
Privacy International was first formed in 1990 to fight government surveillance and promote the right to privacy across the world. Most of its early campaigns were focused on China and Southeast Asia. However, following the Snowden revelations, its attention has shifted closer to home.
This latest case follows two previous legal challenges by Privacy International. The first, filed in 2013, questioned the legality of PRISM, Upstream and Tempora programs, which GCHQ ran in partnership with the US National Security Agency (NSA).
The second, filed in May, alleged that GCHQ infected millions of computers and mobile devices with malware in order to collect intelligence data, violating articles 8 and 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Last month, the first complaint finally yielded results, with the government admitting it interceped British citizens’ Facebook, Google and Twitter data by using separate laws that apply to communications stored on servers which are located abroad.
Now, the oprganisation has filed yet another legal challenge with the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, claiming it has identified four legal issues with the GCHQ conduct.
Privacy International says the agency’s methods are not just illegal, but “undermine the goodwill the organisations rely on” and “damage the trust in security and privacy that makes the internet such a crucial tool of communication and empowerment”. It adds that this the first time that internet and communication providers have taken collective action against GCHQ.
ISPs participating in the lawsuit include GreenNet from the UK, Riseup and Media Jumpstart from the US, Greenhost from the Netherlands, Chaos Computer Club from Germany, Jinbonet from South Korea and Mango from Zimbabwe.
“Each of the Claimants is a responsible and professional internet service provider. None has any interest in supporting terrorist activity or criminal conduct. They each comply with the law in the countries in which they operate, including UK law in the case of GreenNet, and US law in the case of RiseUp,” sates the complaint.
“Snowden’s revelations have exposed GCHQ’s view that independent operators like GreenNet are legitimate targets for internet surveillance, so we could be unknowingly used to collect data on our users,” said Cedric Knight, spokesman for GreenNet.
“We say this is unlawful and utterly unacceptable in a democracy. Our long established network of NGOs and charities, or simply individuals who value our independent and ethical standpoint, rely on us for a level of integrity they can’t get from mainstream ISPs. Our entire modus operandi is threatened by this illegal and intrusive mass surveillance.”
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