Surveillance by GCHQ : What do you say now, Mr Cameron?

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One of them will have to justify the GCHQ surveillance systems before the European Court of Human Rights: David Cameron with Barack Obama Bild: dpa

We are not helplessly at the mercy of the NSA and GCHQ surveillance systems: the UK government is going to have to justify itself before the European Court of Human Rights.

          Half of Germany was hanging on Barack Obama’s every word when the US President told the German public on prime-time TV that he intended to continue mass surveillance in the future. Media reporting on the Snowden revelations has focused largely on the American NSA, the political reactions in the USA and the proposed mini-reforms. The NSA’s not-so-small brother in the UK – Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ – has wrongly disappeared from the centre of attention.

          (German version: „Reden Sie jetzt, Herr Cameron!“)

          The electronic snooping service of the former British Empire developed out of a famous group of code breakers based at Bletchley Park, the UK’s intelligence service headquarters, who had successfully attacked the encryption systems of the Axis powers during the Second World War. For Britain, the successful deciphering of Germany’s Enigma cipher machines was decisive for the outcome of the War. Being able to read the encrypted messages of the German Navy was a major factor in breaking Nazi Germany’s submarine blockade of the island nation, which was almost completely dependent on shipping for its supplies. Alan Turing, one of the greatest mathematical talents of the twentieth century and the godfather of artificial intelligence, played a crucial role in the process.

          Bletchley Park and GCHQ was always shrouded in secrecy. The British Official Secrets Act is much more restrictive than its equivalent in the United States. Parts of Bletchley Park’s history are still officially kept secret, even though decades have passed. Only recently could the Queen bring herself to officially rehabilitate Alan Turing, who was prosecuted, chemically castrated and discriminated against after the War because of his homosexuality and died young. Not exactly the traditional way a nation expresses its gratitude.

          Astonishingly creative and brazen

          Many of the secrecy regulations that were introduced at the time of the Second World War are essentially still in force today. The intelligence services and military can even exert direct influence on press coverage under what amounts to pre-democratic regulations. Public debate on the extent of surveillance and the role of the intelligence services has been stifled by so-called DA-Notices, in which the government tells editors-in-chief what they must not report – under threat of prosecution. As a result, the debate on the Snowden revelations has made little progress in the UK, apart from the articles published in the Guardian newspaper.

          Even today, when it comes to surveillance by the intelligence services there is neither any effective recourse to the courts, nor any significant monitoring. Yet GCHQ in particular is astonishingly creative and brazen, engaging in snooping activities on a scale bordering on imperial megalomania. The Tempora program stores and analyses several days of the entire internet traffic that crosses the UK – and this also includes a large percentage of Europe’s transatlantic connections.

          NSA funds part of GCHQ’s budget

          Snowden’s documents have also revealed that GCHQ’s white-collar computer burglars targeted and attacked the computers of the major Belgian telecommunications provider Belgacom’s administrators, the aim being to gain control of the critical network infrastructure. Such aggressive attacks on a friendly country are unprecedented – up to now at least, because we will certainly be looking even deeper into the abysses of the intelligence services’ actions in the course of 2014.

          It has become clear from many other Snowden documents that the NSA and GCHQ work together so closely that they operate de facto as one unit. In this context the British spies are subject to even fewer restrictions and controls than their American partners, and there has been little in the way of public debate to which they have been forced to respond. The financially potent NSA even funds part of GCHQ’s budget – so appreciative are the Americans of the intensive cooperation of the most important Five Eyes partner and of the geostrategic advantages offered by the British Isles’ position – where most Atlantic submarine cables land.

          The blanket surveillance affects every European

          Anyone who tries to challenge the GCHQ’s unbridled snooping through the courts in the UK will discover that there is no adequate legal recourse. The only possibility is to make a complaint to a control commission (the Investigatory Powers Tribunal), which makes its decisions in secret without recourse to ordinary courts of law. It is also virtually impossible to mount a legal challenge to its verdicts.

          However, as a member of the EU the United Kingdom is subject to the jurisdiction of the European Courts, having ratified the European Convention on Human Rights as early as the 1950s. This is why the author of this column – together with the British organizations Big Brother Watch, the Open Rights Group and the writers’ association PEN – appealed to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in September of last year, because the blanket surveillance of internet traffic by GCHQ affects every European’s „right to respect for private and family life“ under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

          It is now the task of the judges in Strasbourg

          The judges of the ECtHR have now recognized the sensitivity of the issue. They have approached the British government and asked for a statement. They are emphasizing the urgency of the matter and giving the case high priority, which is why the British Government has only been given a short period of time in which to justify GCHQ’s practices and the monitoring systems.

          It is now the task of the judges in Strasbourg to protect the citizens’ right to privacy in the face of persistent and massive spying by European intelligence agencies, and to implement the European Convention on Human Rights in practice. The fact that the court has recognized our complaint as sufficiently urgent and important for the future of effective human rights protection in the digital age – and that the judges regard the control of the intelligence services as a priority – has refocused attention on the really essential issue: European Human Rights. The hype surrounding Obama’s interview and his reassuring words had pushed human rights out of the limelight. David Cameron now has to answer the questions.

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