LONDON, Feb. 6 (UPI) -- Mass Internet surveillance by a British government intelligence agency was ruled illegal Friday by an investigative court.
Britain's Investigative Powers Tribunal (IPT) said access and use of information gathered from the Internet by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) between 2007 and 2014 and shared in bulk with Britain's Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the government and military intelligence and security agency, was unlawful.
It was the first time the shadowy IPT, in existence since 2000, has ruled against a British intelligence agency, and the decision was celebrated by Amnesty International and several other human rights agencies that brought the suit to the IPT.
"This is an historic victory in the age-old battle for the right to privacy and free expression," said Rachel Logan of Amnesty International UK. "The government has been playing a cat-and-mouse game over surveillance -- talking about 'national security' while trying to cover up unlawful behavior in its use of private data. Governments around the world are becoming increasingly greedy and unscrupulous in the way they sweep up and use our personal information. This is about showing that the law exists to keep the government spooks in check."
In its ruling, the IPT said regulations covering GCHQ's access to emails and phone records, intercepted by NSA and then turned over to GCHQ, violated articles of the European Convention on Human Rights pertinent to privacy and freedom of expression. It added that government regulations regarding the collected data were illegal because the public was unaware of legal safeguards.
James Welch of Liberty, a British civil liberties watchdog organization, said after the ruling, "By keeping the public in the dark about their secret dealings with the NSA, GCHQ acted unlawfully and violated our rights... the intelligence services retain a largely unfettered power to rifle through millions of people's private communications."
Testimony during the tribunal's investigation revealed over 160 billion "interception records" were obtained by the NSA in one month alone, and the contents of nearly 700,000 email addresses were pulled, from email service providers such as Yahoo, Hotmail and Gmail, in a single day.
A statement by a spokeswoman for British Prime Minister David Cameron defended the GCHQ on Friday, saying, "What they [the IPT] said was that there should be more about the rules [regarding surveillance] that should be disclosed publicly ... they are not questioning in this judgment that the safeguarding of privacy was in any way jeopardized, and the judgment will not require GCHQ to change in any way what it does."