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World's largest telcos face legal action for role in UK mass surveillance program

Some of the world's largest telecommunication companies are facing legal action for colluding with British spy agency GCHQ and failing to protect customers' privacy rights, Privacy International said in a letter issued to the cable providers.

On 2 August, Germany’s Suddeutsche Zeitung newspaper published the identities of the companies providing Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) with access to their systems: BT, Verizon Business, Vodafone Cable, Level 3, Global Crossing (now owned by Level 3), Viatel and Interoute.

While it had been previously reported that the UK's mass surveillance program, Tempora, tapped directly into undersea fibre optic cables to collect a vast amount of internet traffic, until now the companies cooperating with the government have remained out of the spotlight.

In a pre-action letter issued to the companies, Privacy International demanded that the companies provide details on their relationship with GCHQ, including by outlining company policies for assessing the lawfulness of government requests, and describing any requests they received from authorities to intercept information, any steps taken to oppose or resist such orders, and the amount they have been paid for their cooperation with governments.

Eric King, Head of Research at Privacy International, said:

Tempora would not have been possible without the complicity of these undersea cable providers. Despite the companies' obligation to respect human rights standards, particularly when governments seek to violate them, spy agencies are being allowed to conduct mass surveillance on their systems. Human rights obligations are especially important when the government requests are made without public scrutiny, and are governed by secret law. These companies are the last line of defence for customers against the government's intrusion into our private lives. What we, and the public, deserve to know is this: To what extent are companies cooperating with disproportionate intelligence gathering, and are they doing anything to protect our right to privacy?"

Privacy International argues that telecommunications companies have a human rights obligation, under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, to take reasonable steps to protect customers’ privacy, including from intrusion by governments. By complying with government requests, companies are unlawfully participating in mass and indiscriminate surveillance and are in breach of Article 8.

In July, Privacy International brought a claim in the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) challenging Tempora and GCHQ's access to the PRISM program, which is operated by the National Security Agency in the United States. Unless the companies provide a satisfactory response, Privacy International will be adding them as respondents to its IPT claim.