The UK government spied on the communications of Amnesty International, and retained and stored this data for longer than legally allowed, it has been revealed.
The Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) admitted that it wrongly said this hadn't happened in its report on 22 June (PDF) and that it had mixed up data on Amnesty with another organisation.
The IPT had said that GCHQ monitored and illegally stored the communications of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights and the South African non-profit Legal Resources Centre, but not UK rights groups.
However, it has now told Amnesty that this was incorrect and that it was Amnesty that was spied on, not the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.
"The small number of documents in respect of which the IPT made the finding that there had been a breach by virtue of the exceeding of time limits for retention in fact related to Amnesty International and not the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights," the IPT said, as reported by The Intercept.
Salil Shetty, Amnesty’s secretary general, described the revelations as "outrageous".
“After 18 months of litigation and all the denials and subterfuge that entailed, we now have confirmation that we were in fact subjected to UK government mass surveillance," he said.
"It’s outrageous that what has often been presented as being the domain of despotic rulers has been occurring on British soil by the British government."
Amnesty said there was no reason given for why the spying had taken place and Shetty said he found it unsettling that the government could act in such a way, especially given the delicate nature of the organisation's work.
“How can we be expected to carry out our crucial work around the world if human rights defenders and victims of abuses can now credibly believe their confidential correspondence with us is likely to end up in the hands of governments?" he said.
“The revelation that the UK government has been spying on Amnesty International highlights the gross inadequacies in the UK’s surveillance legislation. If they hadn’t stored our communications for longer than they were allowed to by internal guidelines, we would never even have known. What’s worse, this would have been considered perfectly lawful.”
The initial ruling by the IPT ordered GCHQ to delete any data it still holds from its monitoring of the organisations it was found to have wrongly targeted.
The ruling at the time found that similar actions against rights groups such as Liberty and Privacy International were not in breach of the rules.
This does not mean they were not spied on, as the monitoring can only come to light if it is discovered that GCHQ has broken any laws governing surveillance.
Eric King, deputy director of Privacy International, said that the "farcical developments" revealing that Amnesty was indeed targeted by GCHQ show just how important it is that sweeping changes to surveillance laws are made.
"Our system of oversight and remedy has fundamentally failed. Five experienced judges inspected the secret evidence, seemingly didn't understand it, and wrote a judgement that turned out to be untrue. We need to know why and how this happened," he said.
"Any confidence that our current oversight could keep GCHQ in check has evaporated. Only radical reforms will ensure this never happens again.”
After the initial ruling on 22 June the government accepted the findings from the IPT, but blamed them on "technical errors" rather than malicious intent.
"We welcome the IPT's confirmation that any interception by GCHQ in these cases was undertaken lawfully and proportionately, and that where breaches of policies occurred they were not sufficiently serious to warrant any compensation to be paid to the bodies involved," said a spokesperson at the time.
"GCHQ takes procedure very seriously. It is working to rectify the technical errors identified by this case and constantly reviews its processes to identify and make improvements."
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