British Government Allowed Unlawful Internet Spying, Court Says

(Bloomberg) -- The British foreign secretary unlawfully delegated powers to security services that allowed agencies to improperly intercept messages in some cases before 2015, judges ruled on Monday, backing previous rulings about U.K. spies’ bulk-data collection.

The Investigatory Powers Tribunal, a special court in London that investigates spying cases, ruled that it was illegal for the foreign secretary to give general permission for security services to intercept all communications passing through an Internet network when Government Communications Headquarters -- a spy agency known as GCHQ -- had requested a more limited direction to access particular data.

William Hague was foreign secretary starting in 2010, and Philip Hammond, the current chancellor, held the post from 2014 to 2016.

Most of the relevant directions made from 2001 to 2012 were unlawful, the judges said, but “in substance and effect from about 2014, there was no unlawful delegation of power, nor was there a disproportionate use of such directions.”

Millie Graham Wood, a solicitor at advocacy group Privacy International, which brought the case, said the foreign secretary was supposed to protect access to data by personally authorizing any intercepts, and that delegating this power “risked nullifying that safeguard.”

The IPT has historically sat in secret, but in recent years opened up as western governments have struggled to find a balance between protecting populations against the threat of terrorism and preserving their right to a private life.

“The history of the case is living proof of the dangers of closed hearings,” Graham Wood said. “The unlawful data collection became plain only once we were given first sight of the orders” after the tribunal had issued its first judgment in the case, she said in a statement.

A related case on the role of the IPT is also set to be heard by the U.K.’s top court.

A spokesperson for the Home Office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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