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UK admits it spied illegally for 17 years, is sorry, won't stop

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The Chancellor Speaks Ahead Of The Spending Review At GCHQ Photo by Ben Birchall - WPA Pool / Getty Images

After more than a year of legal struggle, the UK’s Investigatory Powers Tribunal has issued a landmark ruling on the country's secret bulk collection program. That program, first revealed by Edward Snowden, allowed the country's surveillance agency, the GCHQ, to tap internet cables and build a detailed database of the country's communications with little to no legal oversight.

The ruling has both good news and bad news for British spies. First, the bad news: the court found that, between 1998 and the tail end of 2015, GCHQ’s bulk collection program was conducted in brazen defiance of Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights. Parliament never approved the program as legal, despite several opportunities to do so.

The bulk collection, which includes collecting a year’s worth of location records and call data from every cell phone in Britain, was kept secret from the public and outside the reach of courts. The result was a massive violation of the nation’s privacy, made public only after unauthorized disclosures by a whistleblower who is currently forbidden from entering the country.

The good news is that last November — years after the initial Snowden disclosures and months after the Privacy International lawsuit was filed — the GCHQ’s bulk collection program was changed to include more disclosure on the underlying policies, rendering it legal without affecting the underlying operations. As a result, nothing has to change, and it’s unlikely that anyone involved in the program will face repercussions of any kind.

So that’s settled then.

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