How would you know if the police or security services have looked at your private communications when they shouldn’t have? The lack of transparency about surveillance means that we do not know whether surveillance powers are being abused. ORG wants people who have been placed under surveillance to be notified six months after the surveillance ends, as long as there is no risk to an ongoing investigation. This happens in other democracies and would help the police and security services to be more transparent about their work.

The current lack of transparency means that it is very difficult to find out when surveillance errors have been made. However, here are some of the cases we do know about.

Human rights organisations

In July 2015, the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT), revealed that GCHQ had illegally retained and examined the communications of Amnesty International and a South African non­profit organisation, the Legal Resources Centre whose clients include very vulnerable people who are bringing cases against the South African Government.

Salil Shetty, Amnesty International’s secretary general, said: “It’s outrageous that what has been often presented as being the domain of despotic rulers has been done on British soil, by the British government.

“How can we be expected to carry out our crucial work around the world if human rights defenders and victims of abuse can now credibly believe their confidential correspondence with us is likely to end up in the hands of governments?”

Green party members

Leading members of the Green party were placed on a Met police database of ‘domestic extremists’. Caroline Lucas MP, Baroness Jenny Jones and London mayoral candidate Sian Berry were monitored by an intelligence unit intended to target serious criminals. Caroline Lucas MP responded:

“Spending precious resources on monitoring elected politicians is a clear waste of the public’s money – and sends a chilling message to those who want to engage in peaceful political demonstrations. Nobody should be subject to arbitrary surveillance.

“It’s this kind of thinking that has led police in this country to waste vast amounts of taxpayers’ money in infiltrating environmental groups. The police should focus resources on fighting real crime, not attempting to stifle legitimate protest.”

Yahoo! subscribers

The Snowden documents about the programme OPTIC NERVE showed that GCHQ tapped into the private webcam communications of Yahoo! subscribers who were not suspected of any crime­ so that they could improve facial recognition software. Over a six month period, millions of pictures, including sexually explicit material, were collected from 1.8 million Yahoo! subscribers.


The Snowden documents showed that GCHQ collected and shared the emails of journalists working from international news organisations, including the BBC, The New York Times and Reuters. Investigative journalists were also identified as a 'threat', alongside terrorists and hackers, in a GCHQ information security assessment.

The police used surveillance powers to bypass journalistic protections to protect sources when they accessed the phone records of Sun journalist Tom Newton-Dunn in 2014. The General Secretary of the NUJ, Michelle Stanistreet, said: "If whistleblowers believe that material they pass to journalists can be accessed in this way – without even the journalists and newspaper knowing about it - they will understandably think twice about making that call."

Gemalto and Belgacom

GCHQ attacked the Dutch company Gemalto, a major manufacturer of SIM cards used in mobile phones worldwide. The aim of the hacking operation was to steal encryption keys for mobile phones. The Belgian telecommunications company Belgacom was targeted by GCHQ from 2010 in order to gain access to important international telecommunications infrastructure. This is the first documented government­ sponsored cyber attack by one EU member state against another. The direct consequences and costs for both companies were the same as if a criminal organisation had broken into their systems. They had to remove malware originating from GCHQ, protect themselves from future attacks and regain the trust of their customers.