Internet surveillance by GCHQ, U.K. electronic intelligence agency, ruled unlawful

United Kingdom spies acted illegally when they scooped up data about Britons’ electronic communications gathered by the U.S. National Security Agency, a court ruled Friday in a landmark judgment against Britain’s security services.

But the judges said now that details of the practices are known, they are within the law.

Britain’s Investigatory Powers Tribunal, which deals with complaints against the intelligence services, ruled in a case brought by civil liberties groups against the electronic intelligence agency, GCHQ.

It said that before December 2014, “the regime governing the soliciting, receiving, storing and transmitting by U.K. authorities of private communications of individuals” gathered by the NSA contravened European Union protections of privacy and freedom of expression.

But it said the practices were now legal — because the rights groups’ lawsuit had made details of the procedures and safeguards public.

The groups brought the case after U.S. intelligence analyst Edward Snowden’s disclosures about the mass harvesting of communications data. Snowden disclosed NSA programs known as PRISM — which accessed data from internet firms such as Yahoo and Google — and Upstream, which tapped into undersea communications cables.

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