Left-Field ISPs File Hopeless Legal Complaint Against UK Spy Agency GCHQ

In a move that feels a bit like turkeys complaining to Christmas, a consortium of Internet Service Providers (ISPs), in conjunction with Privacy International, have filed a legal complaint with the UK’s Investigatory Powers Tribunal, a judicial body that claims to be independent from the British Government, over how the UK spy agency GCHQ reportedly operates.

The complaint relates to what the group call “GCHQ’s attacking and exploitation of network infrastructure in order to unlawfully gain access to potentially millions of people’s private communications” — the type of revelations that came to light courtesy of the Edward Snowden files, which include the targeting of ISPs’ systems, as well as their system admin staff.

Specifically, the group of rather left-field ISPs argue that GCHQ’s attacks on providers are not only illegal, but are “destructive, undermine the goodwill the organisations rely on, and damage the trust in security and privacy that makes the internet such a crucial tool of communication and empowerment.” As a result, they are demanding an end to such network “exploitation” and the infringement of their users’ rights.

Notably, however, the list of ISPs that make up the complainants aren’t exactly household names or, unsurprisingly, major telcos and multinational corporations. They comprise: Riseup (US), GreenNet (UK), Greenhost (Netherlands), Mango (Zimbabwe), Jinbonet (Korea), May First/People Link (US), and the Chaos Computer Club (Germany) — many of whom already have a political or social justice agenda, around freedom of speech or the environment. Not that this makes the complaints any less valid, from a legal or moral point of view.

But, as a British citizen, the real story here is who the complainants are complaining to. The Investigatory Powers Tribunal is a judicial body almost as secret as some of the secret organisations it’s employed to hold to account. Established in 2000 by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, its job is to investigate complaints about surveillance by public bodies in the UK, which includes GCHQ. However, this remit comes with a list of caveats.

According to Wikipedia — yes, I know, but run with me here — the Investigatory Powers Tribunal does not disclose its address. It uses a PO Box in Nine Elms, London, “close to the Secret Intelligence Building.” It’s also exempt from the Freedom of Information Act, so information made available to it in the course of considering a complaint cannot be obtained under a Freedom of Information request. That’s the clincher.

And if you still aren’t convinced the ISPs who have filed against GCHQ have likely done so in vain, the Investigatory Powers Tribunal have only upheld 10 complains between 2000 and 2012, out of nearly 1,500, according to some estimates. This includes any public body that falls under the tribunal’s remit, including local authorities, so not just spy agencies like GCHQ.

So, yeah, turkeys will remain on the menu for the foreseeable future.

Photo credit: Ministry of Defence