London (Alliance News) - British intelligence service GCHQ's mass surveillance of the internet was unlawful prior to the publication of new safeguards in December, a tribunal ruled on Friday.
GCHQ's use of intelligence from two data-mining programmes run by the US National Security Agency (NSA) breached EU human rights law, said the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, a government-supervised watchdog.
The intelligence service's use of the data only complied with EU human rights law once new rules were announced in December, the tribunal ruled in a case brought by Liberty, Privacy International and other human rights groups.
The critical ruling was the first against a British intelligence agency since the tribunal was founded 15 years ago.
"We now know that, by keeping the public in the dark about their secret dealings with the National Security Agency, GCHQ acted unlawfully and violated our rights," said James Welch, Liberty's legal director.
"But the intelligence services retain a largely unfettered power to rifle through millions of people's private communications," Welch said.
Eric King, deputy director of Privacy International, said the ruling showed intelligence agencies should not be allowed to "continue justifying mass surveillance programmes using secret interpretations of secret laws."