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UK Tribunal rules MI5 mass surveillance data was stored unlawfully

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Liberty and Privacy International have announced victory in a case they brought against an important cog in the UK’s security and spying machine, the domestic agency MI5.

The two human rights organizations said the cases revolved around MI5 mishandling data belonging to millions of people in an unlawful manner, and despite being aware of the facts, continuing with the practice.

On Monday, the Investigatory Powers Tribunal issued a ruling in the case, filed three years ago, that stated “very serious failings” had been discovered at top MI5 levels, when it comes to compliance with privacy safeguards.

We obtained a copy of the ruling for you here.

According to the ruling, the particular transgression has been going on since 2014. To make matters worse, one after another of the UK’s Home Secretaries essentially did nothing to remedy the situation, which should have been done through enquiries into MI5’s behavior, or finding ways to resolve “obvious, long-standing rule-breaking.”

The accusation which the Tribunal agreed with was that the MI5 secretly gathered private data of individuals, to then handle, i.e., retain it unlawfully.

Given the broad powers granted by the Investigatory Powers Act, aka the Snoopers’ Charter – specifically concerning collection and storage of data belonging to any person – everyone should walk away from the Tribunal’s findings concerned for their privacy, the rights groups suggested.

MI5 for its part admitted that the data was stored improperly, and that the action was not based on any legal grounds. Another admission has been that the Home Office was not informed about this. But the Tribunal said that the Home Office and other secretariats in effect ignored the red flags even though they had enough information to suspect foul play on the part of the MI5 – and this “obliviousness” appears to have lasted since 2016.

Instead, say Liberty and Privacy International, “successive Home Secretaries repeatedly ignored the signs of MI5’s unlawful handling of data, and continued to sign off on surveillance warrants unlawfully.”

The behavior of a number of Home Secretaries during this period was “irrational,” considering the length of time during which reports about non-compliance risks kept piling up, the Tribunal found.

The Tribunal said MI5 and the Home Secretary engaged in unlawful behavior, but “refused to grant further relief including the quashing of warrants issued during the period of unlawful handling and the Home Office’s failed oversight, destruction of data and damages,” the rights groups noted.

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