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Arguments as circular as the GCHQ building

Posted by on October 28, 2014.

A complaint by Privacy International against the six undersea fibre optic cable companies, including BT and Vodafone, that facilitate GCHQ’s mass surveillance practices has been rejected by the UK agency charged with ensuring corporate compliance with human rights obligations, after the companies refused to reveal the extent of their cooperation with GCHQ.

Let’s see if I’ve got this right. The world has NSA and GCHQ documents leaked by Edward Snowden detailing widespread and in many cases potentially illegal — certainly immoral — dragnet surveillance. As far as I am aware, the NSA has never sought to challenge the legitimacy of any of these documents. GCHQ has simply refused to say anything.

In the UK surveillance is governed by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA — the UK version of the PATRIOT Act) and the Telecommunications Act. Like the PATRIOT Act, they come complete with a gag order. Those who are surveilled can be forced to say nothing about the surveillance. I would assume this applies also to those who are forced to connive in the surveillance (just like the PATRIOT Act).

So we have a situation where everybody knows that six major cable operators — some UK and others US — have been forced by law to do GCHQ’s bidding; and forced by the same law to do nothing that might admit to that bidding.

Challenged by Privacy International, they give responses like:

Section 94(5) of the Telecommunications Act 1984[2] would prohibit voluntary disclosure of anything done by virtue of any order, if any such order had been served.

Notice that this is neither a denial nor an admission. In other words, it is exactly what we might expect from a company under a gag order.

Privacy International’s complaint has been denied not because the cable companies are innocent, but simply because they are not allowed to admit their guilt. The plaintiff’s case is dismissed because the defendant tells the judge that doing what he is accused of would be illegal. I must remember that argument next time I am pulled over for speeding.

 


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Submitted in: News, News_legal, News_politics, News_surveillance | Tags: , , , , ,