Campaigners ask US court to reveal extent of spying by Five Eyes Alliance

Privacy International has asked a court to compel the U.S. government to reveal the extent of its eavesdropping activities, and the legal basis for them

After the "Five Eyes" eavesdropping alliance called on internet companies to help it spy on the world's citizens, civil liberties groups told the five countries to keep their hands off encryption -- and one group has filed suit in a U.S. court to find out what the eavesdroppers are listening to.

A lot has changed in the 71 years since the Five Eyes -- Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the U.K. and the U.S. -- formed their alliance. The people they're spying on don't just make phone calls to communicate: They also use smartphones, search engines and email, and upload data from their fitness trackers, providing spy agencies with a wealth of data.

But widespread use of encryption is making it harder for the spies to eavesdrop on that data as it travels over satellite and submarine telecommunications links.

That prompted officials from the five governments, meeting in Canada in late June, to call on ISPs and device makers to cooperate with government efforts to break the encryption used by terrorists and criminals to hide their communications.

On June 30, 83 civil liberties organizations wrote to the five government ministers presumed responsible for their countries' participation in the Five Eyes Alliance, urging them to strengthen, not weaken, the security of communications systems.

"As a technology, encryption does far more good than harm," they told the ministers.

But calling for the alliance members to leave encryption alone wasn't enough for one of the letter's signatories.

Privacy International filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on Thursday, calling for the U.S. government to disclose records relating to the alliance.

The most recent public information dates back to 1955 and calls for the five countries to exchange all the signals intelligence they gather by default, and also to share tips on eavesdropping techniques.

Privacy International has been using U.S. freedom of information laws to find out what's happened in the intervening 62 years, so far without success: All agencies have withheld the information it requested.

Thursday's complaint calls on the U.S. government to disclose the current version of the Five Eyes agreement and the rules governing its exchange of intelligence with the other alliance members.

Privacy International emphasized that is seeking the agreement’s legal standards and limitations, not operational details.

"Key documents, including the current agreement, remain secret, despite being critical to proper scrutiny of US surveillance activities.

"The public has a right to know what rules govern the exchange of information -- which may include purely domestic communications and data -- through this private pact," said Privacy International's legal officer, Scarlet Kim.

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