BT and other telcos face lawsuit over data leaks

Privacy International to take legal action over claims telcos gave GCHQ unfettered data access

Nicole Kobie
9 Aug 2013

BT and other telecoms providers face a lawsuit from British activist group Privacy International, following accusations that the companies have allowed spy agencies to access customer data.

Last week, a German newspaper revealed that a series of telecommunications firms had given GCHQ access to their systems as part of the Tempora surveillance programme.

In response, the privacy campaigner has sent a pre-action letter to BT, as well as Verizon Business, Vodafone Cable, Viatel, Interoute and Level 3 and its subsidiary Global Crossing, warning that the firms and the spy agency may be in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights.

These companies are the last line of defence for customers against the government's intrusion into our private lives

The letter demands that those companies admit their relationship with GCHQ, explain how they decide whether or not a government request is lawful, and release details of the requests they've received - including whether they've resisted the requests, and whether they've been paid for their cooperation.

Eric King, head of research at Privacy International, said Tempora's operation would "not have been possible without the complicity" of the named firms.

"Despite the companies' obligation to respect human rights standards, particularly when governments seek to violate them, spy agencies are being allowed to conduct mass surveillance on their systems," King said.

"These companies are the last line of defence for customers against the government's intrusion into our private lives," he added. "What we, and the public, deserve to know is this: To what extent are companies cooperating with disproportionate intelligence gathering, and are they doing anything to protect our right to privacy?"

If the companies don't respond, Privacy International said it will add them to its existing legal case challenging Tempora and the NSA's Prism.

In response, a BT spokesman said: "Questions relating to national security are for governments, not telecommunications providers. Having said that, we can reassure customers that we comply with the law wherever we operate and do not disclose customer data in any jurisdiction unless legally required to do so."

The letter comes after an encrypted email firm shut down rather than hand over data to the US government about whistleblower Edward Snowden.

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