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Pakistan-based human rights group files complaint against UK over mass surveillance

Privacy International's partner organisation, Bytes for All, has filed a complaint against the Government, decrying the human rights violations inherent in such extensive surveillance and demonstrating how the UK's mass surveillance operations and its policies have a disproportionate impact on those who live outside the country.

Bytes for All, a Pakistan-based human rights organization, filed its complaint in the UK Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT), the same venue in which Privacy International lodged a similar complaint last July.

While such mass surveillance, in and of itself, is violative of human rights, that infringement is compounded where foreigners' phone calls, emails, or internet searches are intercepted as they currently receive even fewer legal protections than the communications of those who reside in the UK. In addition to violating Articles 8 and 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), which protect private communications, such disparate treatment is a violation of Article 14 that prohibits discrimination of all sorts, including based on nationality.

The Importance of Foreign Challenges to UK Surveillance

Foreign people and organisations, like Bytes for All, whose human rights have been violated can and should challenge these discriminatory regimes within the countries that engage in such surveillance. As both Bytes for All and Privacy International argue, when it comes to the interception of communications, the violation of rights occurs where the interception takes place.

Accordingly, every country owes the same obligation to each individual whose communications pass through their territory: not to interfere with those communications, subject to permissible limitations established by law. People who have had their communications intercepted, no matter their location or nationality, should be able to object to that interference in the courts and tribunals of the country that carried out the interception.

By doing so, these foreign complainants can not only vindicate their privacy and expressive rights, they can also highlight the discrimination inherent in surveillance programmes like the UK's. Such discrimination is often overlooked, yet the interception of foreign communications by the UK is not rare. In fact, via its Tempora mass surveillance program, the UK reportedly gobbles up the vast majority of internet and phone traffic that travels through undersea fibre optic cables that land in the UK.

As Bytes for All recounts in its complaint, these cables carry much of world's internet traffic, even where no party to the communication is located in the UK. For instance, Bytes for All has found that its communications are often routed through the UK when it accesses websites based in other countries, including the US, Ireland, Hungary, South Africa, and even its neighbour, India. Bytes for All's discovery highlights a worrying truth: No matter where you live, if you use the phone or the internet, the UK government could be intercepting your everyday communications even if the person you're speaking to is nowhere near the UK.

And the UK is not the only country undermining the basic human rights of foreigners through its surveillance practices. In its Eyes Wide Open Special Report, Privacy International puts the spotlight on the discriminatory nature of surveillance laws passed by every member of the Five Eyes alliance - the UK, the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. These countries have essentially declared most communications that originate or terminate outside their borders to be fair game for interception. 

The Five Eyes have generally deflected attention from this aspect of their surveillance regimes by focusing on the protections provided to their own citizens. But the information sharing that occurs among the Five Eyes alliance undermines those purported protections, making that discrimination even more sinister. The scenario emerging is as follows: even if the US cannot directly obtain its own citizens' communications without additional legal process, the UK claims the right to freely intercept communications of US citizens so long as those communications aren't sent and received within the British Isles. The UK then shares the information it collects with the US, giving the US unregulated access to its own citizens' data.

Update on Privacy International's IPT Claims

Both Privacy International and Bytes for All contend that the UK's mass surveillance programmes, such as Tempora, not only discriminate against non-UK nationals, but are also a fundamental violation of the rights to privacy and free expression. There is no clear legal framework in the UK governing the interception, storage and use of such vast amounts of information. Nor can such programmes ever be considered a proportionate response to a legitimate state aim. As such, the UK's mass surveillance initiatives violate the ECHR by impermissibly infringing on privacy and chilling free expression.

Privacy International's case is continuing in the IPT.  As we identified from the start, the tribunal is shrouded by secrecy.  As the case progresses, we intend to advocate for as much transparency and openness as possible.  The legality of the UK's surveillance programmes is best vetted under the sanitising light of public scrutiny.