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UK says spying program that may or may not exist is legal

The British government won’t say whether it’s tapping into emails and phone calls. Its lawyers still appeared in court on Monday defending a challenge to surveillance programs that may or may not exist.

The UK is being sued by Privacy International, Liberty and other international advocacy groups who say monitoring activities exposed by US National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden may be illegal. British security agencies outlined their official stance to the revelations using the acronym NCND, “neither confirm nor deny,” in court documents from a hearing in London on Monday.

This means a panel of five judges is in the unusual position of having to rule on theoretical surveillance and intelligence-sharing arrangements that the government agreed could be used the case. “The whole shooting match is being assumed for the purposes of today,” Judge Michael Burton said as he warned reporters not to treat the evidence as proven.

Snowden, who faces espionage charges in the US, fled to Hong Kong and then to Russia after leaking classified documents on the NSA spying programs. The revelations have affected US relations with allies around the globe, with the spying scandal creating a rift between the US and Germany after the discovery that intelligence agents may have tapped the phone of Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The UK faces lawsuits from human-rights groups, Internet hosting services and two Green Party lawmakers over its role in the interception of emails, communications, documents, videos and Web histories by US security agencies. Government lawyers must tread a fine line defending the legality of its actions while not revealing any information that might threaten national security.

No safeguards
Liberty’s lawyer, Matthew Ryder, said the UK Tempora program, which allegedly involved intercepting “vast amounts of information” flowing through fibre-optic cables, “is not in accordance with the law.” The advocacy groups are seeking a ruling on Tempora and the UK’s use of information provided by the US intelligence agencies, to clarify what is allowed under British law. There are “no adequate safeguards,” he said.

The government is “not obliged to depart from the ordinary NCND stance in relation to the alleged ‘Tempora’ program,” it said in court documents. “This is not a surprising result given the highly sensitive intelligence context.”

The British government maintains it has done nothing illegal. “We have intelligence agencies that do a fantastic job to keep us safe and operate within the law,” Prime Minister David Cameron said in a speech last year.

The case is being heard by a specialist court, the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, which deals with complaints about the conduct of public bodies and their use of intrusive powers. The judges’ consideration of assumed facts is “unlike any other similar tribunal anywhere in the world,” Judge Burton said on Monday morning. – Bloomberg

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