UK Spied on British Citizens Illegally Court Rules, After 'Absurd' Proceedings

A detail from graffiti art is seen on a wall near the headquarters of Britain's eavesdropping agency, Government Communications Headquarters, known as GCHQ. Eddie Keogh/REUTERS

A secret court has ruled that the UK surveillance agency Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), spied on British citizens unlawfully up until December 2014.

The decision marks the first time since the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT), the only UK court which oversees the GCHQ, MI5 and MI6, has ruled against an intelligence and security service since it was established in 2000.

The IPT posted a message on their website this morning reading: "The regime governing the soliciting, receiving, storing and transmitting by UK authorities of private communications of individuals located in the UK, which have been obtained by US authorities… contravened Articles 8 or 10 of the European convention on human rights."

Article 8 provides the right for respect of "private and family life, his home and his correspondence", while article 10 refers to freedom of expression.

The legal challenge against GCHQ was brought against them by three human rights and privacy groups: Amnesty, Liberty and Privacy International. They began legal proceedings just a month after whistleblower Edward Snowden exposed the global surveillance carried by the American National Security Agency (NSA) and GCHQ - in particular the Prism and Tempora surveillance programmes.

While the Prism programme, which allows governments to tap into servers of firms including Google, Apple and Facebook, was acknowledged by the U.S. and UK governments in summer 2013, the UK government continue to refuse to confirm the existence of Tempora - the GCHQ programme which allows them to secretly place data interceptors on fibre-optic cables that carry internet data in and out of the UK.

While acknowledging that they are thrilled with the outcome of the case Carly Nyst, the legal director of Privacy International describes parts of the trial as "absurd".

"It's taken two years to get here and we finally have recognition. Snowden gave us the evidence we needed to do this, and the documents kept coming as the case developed. Up until then it was easy for people to dismiss us as crazy or paranoid," Nyst says.

However, because the of the government's continuous refusal to confirm or deny the existence of Tempora much of the court proceedings had to be argued using hypothesis. "The whole thing had to be based on hypothetical facts because they just wouldn't admit that any of the allegations were true. They basically said: 'We weren't doing it, but even if we were, it would be lawful'. It was an absolutely absurd process at times."

Nyst recalls one particular moment where this ongoing struggle became particularly ridiculous. "There was this one moment where the judge asked them how to correctly pronounce Tempora and they literally refused to refuse to confirm or deny whether the pronunciation was correct.

Sometimes it did really feel just so bizarre - almost dystopian-esque court proceedings."