The next time you're sending an email or browsing the web imagine that you have a government agent sat next to you, peeping over your shoulder to see what you're saying, who you're saying it to and checking the sites you've visited. That kind of assumption was once the preserve of fiction writers and conspiracy theorists, but Orwell was right; big brother is watching you and currently your only way to put a stop to that, is to log off.
In June the US whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed that the US was routinely accessing the communications of millions of people through a previously secret programme, Prism, run by the National Security Agency (NSA) which the UK authorities had access to. It later emerged that the UK's intelligence agency GCHQ may have also subjected people to blanket surveillance through its own secret programme called Tempora.
It's this 'blanket surveillance' that has set alarm bells ringing at Amnesty International and prompted us to take action against the UK government, over concerns that our communications have been unlawfully accessed by the UK intelligence services. We believe that the UK authorities are in breach of Article 8 (right to privacy) and Article 10 (right to freedom of expression) of the Human Rights Act 1998.
The claim has been submitted to the secretive Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT),. A shady government organ, but the only one that deals with complaints about the Intelligence Services.
The IPT determines its own procedures and often carries out its work behind closed doors. That's why Amnesty is calling for the hearing to be public and for there to be full disclosure on any activities by the intelligence services in eavesdropping our communications. It would be somewhat ironic were the IPT to hold a secretive inquiry.
"The times they are a-changing," sang Bob Dylan, and this is certainly true of communications technology. I suspect that the naming of the GCHQ's 'Tempora' programmes is a reference to the Latin "Tempora mutantur", meaning "the times are changed". This is true, technological developments and the Snowdon revelations have exposed the huge gaps in the ability of the existing UK legal framework to keep pace with these changes. It is time that these gaps were filled and a full and public hearing by the IPT must be part of this process.
Transparency and oversight of the intelligence services should be of concern to all of us. Whilst government's may have legitimate reasons to undertake surveillance in order to genuinely protect national security and prevent crime, it is critical that balances and checks are in place. Current oversight and scrutiny of surveillance activities in the UK are woefully inadequate, are in breach of human rights lawAs a global organisation working on sensitive issues, it is critical that there's appropriate oversight of GCHQ and the NSA, and that we don't just blindly depend on them to do what's right.
At Amnesty we work with people that quite literally put their lives on the line in exposing human rights abuses. They often do so at great risks to themselves and their families and it is vital that the space for confidential communications is protected and respected. This is why it is critical that the UK government delivers a full open and transparent investigation into our concerns.
Will they do this? Only last month the UK was elected to the UN Human Rights Council and pledged that the UK would be a "strong supporter of freedom of expression, including on the internet, and promote this as an essential element of our work on democracy".
There is no room for double standards on this. It's time the UK and other governments woke up and smelt the coffee. The UK can't effectively promote human rights and respect freedom of expression and privacy when their own actions ride roughshod over these very rights. We must have a full open and transparent investigation from the IPT and the UK government must take measures to ensure that the rights to privacy and freedom of expression are rigorously enforced.
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