We need to know why the UK government spied on Amnesty International

Alleged Banksy street art - spies around a telephone box in Cheltenham Alleged Banksy street art - spies around a telephone box in Cheltenham © Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Temperatures hit the roof at our London office yesterday on the hottest July day since records began. It wasn’t just the mercury in the barometers that was rising – we had just been emailed by the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) who informed us that they had made a tiny little mistake in their 22 June ruling.

They had previously claimed UK intelligence services had ‘only’ unlawfully spied on two human rights organisations in South Africa and in Egypt. Turns out they hadn’t been spying on the Egyptian NGO, they’d been spying on Amnesty International.

The IPT admitted in a short email that not only that GCHQ has in fact been spying on us, but what's more that it had acted illegally, breaking its own policy on storing our data and communications.

Blood was beginning to boil as colleagues quickly scrambled to get their heads round this shocking announcement and plan our response.

How could the IPT make such a fundamental error? How had they failed to notice for over a week? Why had our communications been under surveillance? When did this happen? How did it happen? And what did they do with the information?

We soon realised that we were unlikely to get answers to any of these questions from the IPT. The IPT is a secretive and shady body that determines its own procedures and often carries out its work behind closed doors. They are also the single and only court in the UK responsible for scrutinising our government’s surveillance practices. Hardly comforting.

As Eric King of Privacy International has said "Today’s farcical developments place into sharp relief the obvious problems with secret tribunals".

Yet, we must have answers. Indiscriminate mass surveillance has an impact that reaches far beyond Amnesty. It impacts on other organisations and it impacts on you! Yes, you! It is encroaching into your private communications and you risk sleepwalking into a surveillance culture if you remain silent because you think you “have nothing to hide”.

That's the problem with ‘indiscriminate mass surveillance’ - it's indiscriminate. We may think that we have nothing to hide, but we have no idea what private information they are collecting, what they are doing with it, who they are sharing it with and how it may be used. Edward Snowdon at a recent Amnesty event pointed out that 'saying you don’t care about mass surveillance because you have nothing to hide, is like saying you don’t care about freedom of the press because you’ve got nothing to write'.

We need answers, and if the IPT won't answer these questions who will? The Intelligence and Security Committee? Not sure that’s going to happen. Appointed by the Prime Minister to oversee the work of the intelligence services and GCHQ, the members of the government's Intelligence and Security Committee are all political appointees and the government retains the right to withhold what it deems ‘sensitive information’ from them. If past form is anything to go by, that could well be a lot.

It’s clear that the lack of accountability and effective judicial oversight means that we are unlikely to get answers to our questions, so Amnesty is pressing the UK government to establish an independent inquiry into how and why the UK intelligence agency has been spying on human rights organisations.

The revelation that Amnesty has been spied on and the failure of the IPT to identify this in its original ruling further demonstrates that the UK needs to get its house in order.

Far from making the necessary renovations, however, we expect to see the government expand its surveillance powers in the Autumn, with the Investigatory Powers Bill. This must, instead, be an opportunity to ensure there are proper limits on the powers of the intelligence services and GCHQ. This time, the oversight should be independent, transparent and - of course - accurate.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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