What are they?
An authorisation under section 7 of the Intelligence and Security Act (ISA) gives authority for SIS or GCHQ to act outside the United Kingdom where it is necessary to do so to carry out their statutory functions.
A section 7 authorisation will ensure that certain activity overseas, which might otherwise expose officers or agents to liability or prosecution in the UK, is exempted from such liability where the activity is authorised by a Secretary of State. A section 7 authorisation would of course have no effect on the law in the country where the act is performed.
Basis in law
Under section 7 of ISA a Secretary of State – in practice usually the Foreign Secretary - may authorise activities by the intelligence agencies outside the United Kingdom which are necessary for the proper discharge of one of their functions.
Authorisations can be for a specific act or for a broader class of activity, known as class authorisations. A class authorisation could be for, for example, agent operations overseas to obtain intelligence. Where the Secretary of State is satisfied that it is necessary and proportionate to authorise a broader class of operations, there are arrangements for the internal approval of specific activities under that authorisation, again where such activities are necessary and proportionate. Under s7(4)(a) of the Intelligence Services Act 1994, a section 7 authorisation may also be specific to a particular operation.
The Secretary of State, before granting each authorisation, must be satisfied of the necessity and reasonableness of the acts and that the agencies act so as not to intrude on privacy any further than justified by the necessity to achieve what is authorised. In this context reasonableness includes privacy and proportionality where appropriate.
How section 7 Authorisations are issued
These authorisations are issued by a Secretary of State, in practice most likely to be the Foreign Secretary. An authorisation is valid for six months, and ceases to have effect at the end of six months. If at any time before the authorisation would cease to have effect the Secretary of State considers it necessary to renew it, he or she may renew it for a period of six months beginning with the day on which it would otherwise cease to have effect.
Urgent oral authorisation may be given by the Secretary of State but authorisations issued in this way are valid for a period of five days only, ending with the fifth working day following the day on which it was issued, unless it is renewed. Written applications must then be made retrospectively.
How is this used in Practice?
SIS has eight section 7 class authorisations covering the day to day activity of their officers operating in overseas stations. This would include traditional surveillance activity and agent running (Cover Human Intelligence Sources). Activity under such an authorisation must then be authorised internally.
GCHQ has five section 7 class authorisations covering their overseas activity including, for example, interference with computers.
Section 7 authorisations can be highly intrusive and complex. Within the accompanying documentation the Commissioner requires that separate consideration be given to limit any unnecessary intrusion into privacy and specifically the privacy of any family members or friends. A strong case must be made to explain why less intrusive means cannot be used and setting out that any privacy being invaded will be outweighed by the necessity of the information being obtained.
Last updated: 23 Jan 16
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