London, United Kingdom - Human Rights Watch has accused the British government of violating its rights by intercepting and retaining its communications through mass surveillance.

The New York-based rights group called spying by UK intelligence "a grave threat to the lives, safety, and work of human rights defenders, researchers, journalists, lawyers, and their sources".   

Human Rights Watch also alleged the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) - the UK's electronic eavesdropping agency - shared its communications with its American counterpart, the National Security Agency (NSA).

The group said it believed its data had been compromised, and has brought a court case against GCHQ in a bid to confirm its suspicions. Three anonymous individuals are also involved in Human Rights Watch's complaint against the GCHQ.

The case was made to the independent Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT), which recently ruled the United Kingdom had illegally intercepted and retained communications from another rights group, Amnesty International.

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"We are bringing this case because confidentiality of communications is critical for those who work to protect human rights and expose abuses and war crimes," Dinah PoKempner, general counsel at HRW, told Al Jazeera.

"Human Rights Watch was not surprised, but was deeply concerned to learn that IPT, the UK court solely responsible for overseeing intelligence agencies, confirmed that GCHQ had intercepted and unlawfully retained communications of Amnesty International.

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"We wanted to confirm whether our communications similarly were being intercepted and retained and challenge the legality if they were. In particular, we wanted to challenge the arrangement whereby the NSA, the GCHQ, and the other 'Five Eyes' intelligence partners share collected data, bypassing their own fairly minimal domestic constraints on spying on their own citizens," PoKempner added.

The so-called "Five Eyes" countries - Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the US and the UK - freely share information with each other, meaning GCHQ is able to access data from the NSA without a warrant.

In February 2015, the Investigatory Powers Tribunal ruled that data-sharing between the NSA and GCHQ prior to December 2014 had violated rights to privacy and freedom of expression. The case relied almost entirely on documents disclosed by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, which exposed the intelligence-sharing relationship between the NSA and GCHQ and made apparent the massive amount of data being shared.

Any sharing since then, the IPT ruled, was legal because of "public disclosures of minimal safeguards".


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HRW and Privacy International (PI) both argue that these safeguards are inadequate, even though they follow the letter of the law.

At the time, a GCHQ spokesperson downplayed the significance of the tribunal's ruling, which was the first time the IPT had upheld a complaint relating to the UK's intelligence agencies.

"By its nature, much of GCHQ's work must remain secret. But we are working with the rest of government to improve public understanding about what we do and the strong legal and policy framework that underpins all our work," said a statement issued by GCHQ relating to the IPT's February ruling.

Human Rights Watch is seeking to find out which of its communications may have been intercepted and shared before December 2014. It also wants the adequacy of the "minimal safeguards" mentioned in the ruling to be challenged at the European Court of Human Rights.

Some also allege the Investigatory Powers Tribunal may be interpreting the term "share" in a much stricter sense than how it is commonly understood.

Eric King, deputy director of London-based charity PI, told Al Jazeera despite the vast amount of data being shared by the Five Eyes countries every day, several major human rights groups as well as PI were told by the tribunal their communications were not among them.

"The numbers we are talking about are staggering: 192 million pieces of phone data, four billion phone location records - every single day - as well as billions of other pieces of data daily," he said, citing numbers revealed as part of the Snowden leaks.

"Despite all those communications, PI's and 10 other rights groups, many of whom have hundreds of staff all over the world, none of ours seemingly were part of those shared. Given the numbers involved, that seemed astonishing to us that not a single one had been caught up in that net. We thought there were probably some word games being played as far as what exactly constituted sharing."


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Earlier this year, Privacy International launched a website called Did the GCHQ spy on you?, which lets people file claims with the Investigatory Powers Tribunal to see whether their emails and phone calls had been compromised.

GCHQ is accused of sharing captured communications with the NSA [Thomas Trutschel/Getty Images] 

King told Al Jazeera that Dutch academics, Belgian communications teams, and companies that provided wireless internet services to aeroplanes had all been hacked and had their communications compromised.

"It isn't just a case of intelligence agencies going after terrorists - there is a much broader sense of people who GCHQ feel might have intelligence value, but who haven't committed any crimes and who aren't a threat to national security, and yet feel the full weight of our security apparatus being used against them," King said.

In an email to Al Jazeera, GCHQ said that it does not comment on ongoing litigation, and offered no further details.

According to PoKempner, the scale of the data-sharing among the Five Eyes countries threatens the safety of a number of rights campaigners around the world.

"Everyone has an interest in their privacy and freedom of thought, communication and association, but for human rights groups, the impact of surveillance can be devastating," she said. "Every day, we are in contact with people whose lives and freedom are at risk in the course of our work to uncover, expose and halt abuses.  

"Unfettered mass surveillance - without suspicion or independent oversight - poses a grave threat to the lives, safety and work of our staff and everyone with whom they are in contact," PoKempner said.

Follow Philippa Stewart on Twitter: @flip_stewart

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Source: Al Jazeera