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BT, Vodafone Threatened With Legal Action Over ‘GCHQ Collusion’

Verizon Business, Level 3, Viatel and Interoute also asked to open up on alleged GCHQ collaboration

On by Thomas Brewster 0

BT and Vodafone are amongst a handful of telecoms firms being threatened with legal action by Privacy International over alleged cooperation with British intelligence on mass surveillance.

Privacy International, which has already filed a complaint about the actions of the UK intelligence services, claimed the companies “colluded” with GCHQ and failed to protect customers’ right to privacy.

GCHQ doughnutIt has now written to the two British telecoms giants, as well as Verizon Business, Level 3, Viatel and Interoute, telling them they will be added to its complaint, lodged with the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT), if they do not reveal how far they helped the UK government.

GCHQ surveillance ‘collusion’

Privacy International was compelled to take the legal route after Germany’s Suddeutsche Zeitung newspaper revealed names of firms who had allegedly handed data to GCHQ.

UK MPs have already decided GCHQ’s access to PRISM, the US National Security Agency’s data collection programme involving cooperation with communications providers, is legal. But little has been said of Tempora, GCHQ’s alleged wiretapping of undersea cables taking data in and out of the UK.

Privacy International believes those companies are involved in Tempora. It has now demanded transparency from the firms about their respective roles in helping GCHQ carry out surveillance. The not-for-profit wants to know if they have been paid to take part in the snooping too.

“Tempora would not have been possible without the complicity of these undersea cable providers,” said Eric King, head of research at Privacy International.

“Despite the companies’ obligation to respect human rights standards, particularly when governments seek to violate them, spy agencies are being allowed to conduct mass surveillance on their systems.

“What we, and the public, deserve to know is this: To what extent are companies cooperating with disproportionate intelligence gathering, and are they doing anything to protect our right to privacy?”

The organisation has cited  Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, granting citizens’ right to privacy, in its case against the government.

Privacy International may not get far with its legal action, however. The IPT holds its cases in secret and there is no need for the court to justify its decisions.

A BT spokesperson said: “Questions relating to national security are for governments, not telecommunications providers. Having said that, we can reassure customers that we comply with the law wherever we operate and do not disclose customer data in any jurisdiction unless legally required to do so.”

Vodafone added: “We comply with the law in all of our countries of operation, including – in the case of our European businesses – the EU Privacy Directive and EU Data Retention Directive. Our business in the UK complies with UK legislation which is derived from the same EU Directives and which incorporates the European Convention on Human Rights.

“In all countries all operators must comply with the legal obligations that are specified in their licence conditions by national governments. Whilst Vodafone must comply with those obligations (as must all operators), we do not disclose any customer data in any jurisdiction unless legally required to do so.”

Interoute said it had no comment, whilst the other firms named by Privacy International had not responded to a request for comment at the time of publication.

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Thomas Brewster
Author: Thomas Brewster
Security Correspondent, TechWeekEurope
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