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Amnesty International Responds to U.K. Government Surveillance


A British tribunal admitted on Wednesday that the U.K. government had spied on Amnesty International and illegally retained some of its communications. Sherif Elsayed-Ali, deputy director of global issues for Amnesty International in London, responds:

Just after 4 p.m. yesterday, Amnesty International received an email from the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT), which hears cases related to U.K. intelligence agencies. The message was brief: There had been a mistake in the tribunal’s judgment 10 days earlier in a case brought by 10 human rights organizations against the U.K.’s mass surveillance programs. Contrary to the finding in the original ruling, our communications at Amnesty International had, in fact, been under illegal surveillance by GCHQ, the U.K.’s signals intelligence agency.

Incredibly, the initial judgment had named the wrong organization — the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights — and it took 10 days to correct the mix-up. The news brought an unexpected and bizarre sense of relief: We strongly suspected that we were being spied on by GCHQ, but having it confirmed in court meant we weren’t just being paranoid.

Of course, GCHQ and likely its U.S. counterpart, the NSA, spy on a range of organizations besides Amnesty. The same IPT judgment revealed GCHQ’s unlawful surveillance of the South African Legal Resources Centre. Leaks by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden showed that GCHQ and the NSA have spied on Doctors of the World and UNICEF. And the fact that the IPT did not find in favor of the eight other organizations bringing the case does not necessarily mean their communications were left untouched — perhaps they were intercepted, but the tribunal considered it had been done legally.

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