GCHQ unlawfully intercepting parliamentary communications, tribunal hears

Tribunal hears claims that GCHQ is unlawfully intercepting MPs' and peers' communications

A two-day hearing at Britain’s top security court is set to test MPs' and peers' claims that the government is unlawfully intercepting parliamentary communications.

Caroline Lucas, the Green Party MP for Brighton Pavilion, Green Party member Jenny Jones, and George Galloway, the former MP for Bradford West, have brought the legal challenge in the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT).

They say the government’s electronic intelligence gathering agency, GCHQ, has intercepted their email and phone communications in breach of the Wilson doctrine.

The doctrine established by former prime minister Harold Wilson, and later extended by Tony Blair, protects MPs' email and phone communications from unjustified surveillance by the state.   

The complaint follows revelations that prison staff have intercepted hundreds confidential telephone calls between prisoners and their MPs.

The politicians filed their claim against security services MI5, MI6 and GCHQ, following revelations that GCHQ is conducting blanket surveillance on internet and phone communications under its Tempora programme. Home secretary Teresa May and foreign secretary Philip Hammond are also named as defendants.

The IPT has already found GCHQ at fault for failing to reveal how it shares information with the US’s National Security Agency (NSA). 

Clarification of Wilson doctrine urged

Lucas and Jones will use the hearing to demand urgent clarification on the scope of the Wilson Doctrine following Edward Snowden’s revelations about GCHQ's Tempora mass surveillance programme.

Lucas said that unfettered surveillance of MPs' communications undermines the trust between MPs and the public.

“The blanket surveillance of communications of parliamentarians could have a deeply chilling effect on our relationship with the public. Parliamentarians must be a trusted source for whistleblowers and those wishing to challenge the actions of the government,” she said.

Jones said there was a clear public interest in protecting the communications of parliamentarians from unnecessary surveillance.

“If our communications are subject to blanket surveillance, and people are less able to freely contact us with important and sensitive revelations, then our ability to do our job is hugely curtailed,” she said.

Lucas and Jones argue there is a strong likelihood that GCHQ is intercepting parliamentary communications under the Tempora programme exposed by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

The programme monitors and collates electronic data passing through the UK on an industrial scale, including emails, internet traffic and telephone calls.

GCHQ is understood to store the content of communications gathered for three days, and metadata, which includes the names and location of the people communicating, for 30 days.

Security of parliamentary data at risk

Concerns have also been raised over the interception of parliamentary communications by the NSA, which operates in partnership with GCHQ.

Parliament has outsourced its email and other communications to Microsoft, which stores parliamentary data on cloud servers in Ireland and Holland, raising questions about the security of MPs' email and data.

In 2014, William Hague gave assurances that that parliamentary data was protected from monitoring by overseas governments.

In a letter to independent peer Lord Laird, he said parliamentary data can safely be held on Microsoft’s Irish and Dutch servers, because foreign access can only be gained by Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty, but his comments have failed to reassure everyone.

The case is being heard today (23 July 2015) before Mr Justice Michael Burton, Mr Justice John Mitting, Robert Seabrook QC, His Honour Geoffrey Rivlin QC and Sir Richard McLaughlin.

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