The UK’s GCHQ spy post can access material collected by the US National Security Agency (NSA) and other foreign spy agencies without needing a warrant, the UK government has admitted.
Such activity was always suspected but has never before been confirmed.
The government admitted to the activities as part of an investigation into GCHQ’s operations being carried out by the Investigatory Powers Tribunal.
The case is being heard after a legal challenge by Privacy International, Liberty and Amnesty International.
The documents submitted by the government reveal "arrangements" that mean GCHQ does not need a warrant from the Secretary of State to access and view data that has been gathered by foreign allies, namely the US.
"[An] interception warrant is not as a matter of law required in all cases in which
unanalysed intercepted communications might be sought from a foreign
government," states one part of the document.
Eric King, deputy director of Privacy international, described such activities as "outrageous" and proof that the government believes mass surveillance to be justifiable.
“We now know that data from any call, internet search or website you visited over the past two years could be stored in GCHQ's database and analysed at will, all without a warrant to collect it in the first place,” he said.
“This is completely unacceptable, and makes clear how little transparency and accountability exists within the British intelligence community.”
James Welch, legal director for Liberty, said the public were clearly not protected by the laws designed to stop such widespread spying activities.
“We have said all along that the law doesn't effectively protect us from mass surveillance by the intelligence services," he said.
The UK government said it could not comment on ongoing legal matters. The NSA said it abided by all necessary laws.
"NSA works with a number of partners in the course of its authorized foreign intelligence mission. Whenever NSA shares intelligence information, we comply with all applicable US laws and policies, including rules designed to safeguard US Person information," it said.
Last week the outgoing director of GCHQ, Sir Iain Lobban, defended the work of the security services as vital to the security of the UK and dismissed claims that it is involved in any untoward 'mass surveillance' of the public.
"The people who work at GCHQ would sooner walk out the door than be involved in anything remotely resembling 'mass surveillance'," he said.
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