Privacy International asks Europe's human rights court for details about Five Eyes spy pact

Privacy International has filed a legal challenge in Europe's top human rights court demanding the release of secret documents detailing the spying agreements between the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. The challenge comes only days after it was revealed that the National Security Agency, with its foreign intelligence partners, uses a Google-like search to delve into the private lives of US citizens and others around the world.

The group of countries, collectively known as the Five Eyes, routinely shares private data on individuals around the world collected through the mass surveillance operations disclosed by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. However, the documents detailing critical information of this arrangement remain secret and hidden from public scrutiny, including the circumstances and manner in which individuals can be spied on, to which governments intelligence agencies provide access to information the collect on individuals' phone and internet communications, and what – if any – safeguards are in place to ensure such information isn't misused by foreign governments. Privacy International has asked the European Court of Human Rights to rule that intelligence agencies should not be entitled to keep the details of such arrangements hidden from the public.

The extent of integration of the intelligence services of the worlds' major English-speaking countries has never been more evident, after the recent disclosure that the UK’s intelligence agency, Government Communication Headquarters, is deeply integrated into the NSA’s ICREACH program, with both agencies providing information for and having access to the surveillance sharing program. According to the Intercept, ICREACH is “built to share more than 850 billion records about phone calls, emails, cellphone locations, and internet chats”, and soon other Five Eyes partners Australia, Canada, and New Zealand will have similar access to ICREACH as the UK.

In order to shed light on this secret intelligence-sharing agreement, which effectively binds the Five Eyes as one intelligence agency, Privacy International, represented by Leigh Day & Co solicitors, filed a legal challenge against the British Government in the European Court of Human Rights. Europe’s highest human rights court is the most appropriate venue for such an international agreement, and has a strong history of ensuring intelligence agencies are compliant with human rights law.

The challenge comes after Privacy International filed Freedom of Information requests in all Five Eyes countries compelling them to release the details of the agreement, which has a profound impact on the enjoyment and fulfilment of human rights around the world.

Governments in the US, UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand denied to publish the secret agreement. In the United Kingdom, GCHQ invoked a blanket exemption that excuses it from any obligation to be transparent about its activities. The same exemption was also invoked by the agency when Privacy International asked for mundane information such as GCHQ's cafeteria menu.

Privacy International asserts that the British Government has violated the right to access information by refusing to publish documents which stipulate how surveillance is shared with and obtained by Five Eyes partners, including the NSA. Privacy International contends that the British Government must come clean on their relationships with foreign intelligence agencies, and that this agreement must be brought to light, made public, and be open for debate.

Eric King, Deputy Director of Privacy International, said:

More than a year after Snowden, the British government continues to dodge the question of just how integrated the operations of GCHQ and NSA truely are. Key documents like the Five Eyes arrangement remain secret, despite them being critical to proper scrutiny of the spy agencies.

The hushing up of the extent of the alliance is shameful. The public deserve to know the dirty deals going on between the Five Eyes, who trade and exploit our private information through this illicit pact. For trust to be restored, transparency around these secret agreements is a crucial first step."

Rosa Curling of Leigh Day said:

The UK's Freedom of Information Act precludes government authorities from disclosing to the public, information directly or indirectly supplied by GCHQ. This absolute exemption is unlawful and contrary to Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which provides for the right to freedom of expression which includes the right to receive information.

It cannot be correct that all information, without exception, directly or indirectly supplied by GCHQ is exempt from public disclosure. With the credibility and public confidence in the activities of the UK's secret service at an all time low, it is crucial that the European Court considers whether the current darkness in which GCHQ operates is allowed to continue."