21:03 GMT07 April 2020
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    Due to the opacity of intelligence agencies, it's difficult to know what information they know about whom. Further complicating the question is the propensity of governments to employ other nations' intelligence agencies to bypass national laws. A coalition of eight civil liberties groups has teamed up to get some answers.

    The International Network of Civil Liberties Organizations is comprised of organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in the US, and similar organizations in the UK, Canada, Ireland, Hungary, Russia, Argentina, and South Africa. The octet announced the transparency initiative June 13, stating they were moved to embark on the project due to a continuing lack of clarity around "covert cooperation."

    ​Secret agreements between intelligence agencies that vastly broaden the geographical scope of their activities, and allow such services to circumvent legislation on their home soil limiting their local activities. 

    Each organization filed freedom-of-information requests with its respective government, asking them to reveal any information-sharing agreements with other countries — as and when the coalition receive responses, information will be post them on the INCLO website (the various request documents are already available). The collective also encourages other groups and individuals to file requests of their own.

    "Public pushback has achieved significant progress in restoring transparency and re-establishing privacy norms in domestic contexts. However, information-sharing agreements remain a critical blind spot, potentially providing intelligence agencies a backdoor to evade legal safeguards and retain surveillance data. [Our] initiative is the first step to uncovering the extent of this threat," the ACLU said in a statement.

    ​Such public pushback was largely inspired by the revelations of Edward Snowden and other whistleblowers, which yielded often shocking information about the mechanics of the US-led worldwide state surveillance apparatus. In particular, they revealed much about the "Five Eyes" — the post-war surveillance alliance established between the US, UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

    Much remains unknown about the pact, and other similar information-sharing relationships between governments. While Snowden's documents suggested the NSA, prohibited from spying on US citizens, used the UK's GCHQ to monitor Americans, conclusive proof was unforthcoming. Nonetheless, laws and regulations governing intelligence agency cooperation are far from clear, and rife with loopholes and grey areas that could easily allow intelligence agencies to sidestep domestic legal constraints — and are often not publicized. For instance, while the US has acknowledged relationships with Germany, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, previous revelations suggest the country has (and had) agreements with intelligence services in many other countries.

    ​You are aware it was the CIA who turned in Nelson Mandela to the Soweto authorities?

    ​For instance, the CIA helped South African agency BOSS spy on Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress in the 1960s; in exchange for providing the CIA with information about Libyans with ties to international terrorism, Libya was permitted to interrogate prisoners at Guantanamo Bay; and the CIA has worked closely with their Ethiopian counterpart in the Horn of Africa, despite the latter's documented abuses against political opponents, the press, and detainees.

    It's arguably vital to scrutinize such practices in the US given the impending reauthorization of Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Intel gleaned under Section 702 has been demonstrably shared with foreign governments, with the NSA intercepting the communications of pro-democracy campaigners in Fiji and then sharing the messages with the agency's counterpart in New Zealand.

    ​Moreover, rules governing how Section 702-collected data may be used by the NSA explicitly state information acquired pursuant to section 702 of the Act may be disseminated to a foreign government, with weak protections for individual privacy. Rules governing how the FBI may use Section 702-collected data entirely redacted, and thus by definition totally unknown.


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    intelligence sharing, intelligence agencies, monitoring, spying, surveillance, Five Eyes, British Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), National Security Agency (NSA), Australia, Canada, United States, United Kingdom, New Zealand
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