Privacy group files OECD complaints over UK telco spying

While the OECD isn't a court and cannot impose sanctions, Privacy International hopes to get answers

Privacy International has filed complaints against U.K. telecommunications companies for assisting British intelligence agency Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) with mass interception of telephone and Internet traffic that passes through undersea fiber optic cables.

The formal complaints were filed with the U.K. office of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which publishes guidelines for responsible business conduct followed by 44 governments including the U.K.

"Privacy International believes that there are grounds to investigate whether up to a dozen OECD guidelines, pertaining to companies' responsibilities to respect human rights, including the right to privacy and freedom of expression, were violated," the group said Tuesday. It said it believes that the telecom companies have violated human rights by enabling the mass and indiscriminate collection of data and interception of communications.

Privacy International, a U.K. charity founded to fight for privacy rights, filed the complaints after media reports alleged that BT, Verizon Enterprise, Vodafone Cable, Viatel, Level 3, and Interoute granted GCHQ access to their fiber optic network via a spying program called Tempora, the organization said.

The group hopes that the OECD British National Contact Point (NCP) will investigate how the companies participated with the surveillance programs as well as help to ensure stronger steps will be taken to assure that companies adhere to the guidelines.

While the OECD is not a court and can't impose any sort of legal judgment, Privacy International hopes the OECD will accept the complaint and obtain responses to questions that would otherwise remain unanswered, said Mike Rispoli, Privacy International's communications manager. "It is an avenue that could allow for a real investigation into the companies' business practices," Rispoli said.

Any interested party is allowed to file a complaint with the OECD and the organization in June accepted a complaint from Privacy International about the alleged use of surveillance equipment produced by U.K.-based company Gamma International against activists in Bahrain.

In July, the group also filed a legal action with the U.K.'s Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) against the U.K. government for conducting mass surveillance on citizens across the U.K. via the GCHQ's Tempora program as well as the Prism program reportedly conducted by the U.S. National Security Agency.

The IPT is a secret court that can investigate complaints about any alleged conduct by, or on behalf of, the intelligence services, according to its site. The IPT is the only U.K. tribunal to whom complaints about the intelligence services can be directed.

Privacy International contemplated adding the complaint against the telecom companies to the IPT case but decided not to do so, said Rispoli. Cases at the IPT can drag on for seven to eight years, he said, adding that the problem with a secret court is that even those involved often don't know what is going on. Therefore, he couldn't provide an update about the case filed against the U.K. government other than it was filed and is being investigated.

While the OECD's process is not completely open, Privacy International hopes that the investigation into the telecom companies will be more transparent, Rispoli said, adding that the charity will push to get any results out in the open. The OECD could be a bit quicker too; the Gamma complaint for instance was filed in January and accepted in June, he said.

The OECD's British National Contact Point did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Loek is Amsterdam Correspondent and covers online privacy, intellectual property, open-source and online payment issues for the IDG News Service. Follow him on Twitter at @loekessers or email tips and comments to loek_essers@idg.com

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