The GUARDINT research team is pleased to introduce a new composite resource that collects and organises intelligence-related law, case law, and oversight reports from France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. The goal of this database is to enable more in-depth research into intelligence surveillance. Read on to find out exactly what’s included and how to use this new tool.

Why a database?

Democratic intelligence governance has become an increasingly intricate subject matter. Today, numerous laws and decrees shape how intelligence agencies work and how they are governed. The body of case law is also constantly growing due to a spike in strategic litigation in many countries. This goes hand in hand with more lengthy reports published by oversight bodies and other reviews and investigations that are conducted across democratic countries. 

However, many of these substantial documents are scattered across different institutions and platforms and are often not easily available or hidden behind obscure website structures. Broken hyperlinks that have ceased to point to the correct file or webpage are another complication.

So far, there has not been a thorough documentation effort to make such documents easily and readily available for researchers and the interested public. A recently published Surveillance Oversight Database aims to address this challenge and increase availability of documents specifically related to intelligence surveillance and oversight.

This publicly accessible and open-source database compiles legal documents, oversight reports, court decisions and regulatory frameworks from France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. These documents have been collected, tagged and uploaded by a transnational team of researchers. The database aims to provide an evolving document archive that supports comparative research and facilitates easy public access to these quintessential documents in one place. It is based on Uwazi, an open source software specifically designed to “make important, public information more accessible”.

What’s inside?

At this point, the database is a work in progress. It will expand over time by including data from more countries and a wider variety of document types. Currently, it includes over 300 documents, in three languages. For example, the French legislative frameworks from 1958, up to a recent ruling in the case of Privacy International vs. the UK from the European Court of Human Rights. English translations of documents are provided when available.

The documents are accessible both as fully searchable plain texts and in PDF. A range of metadata for each uploaded document allows filtering of the entries. Documents can be filtered by:

  • document type, such as laws and regulations, case law, or reports; 
  • bodies that published or adopted a document, such as legislative or executive bodies, courts or oversight bodies; 
  • countries, which are currently mainly France, Germany, and the United Kingdom; 
  • keywords, such as bulk or targeted surveillance;
  • time, either by searching for a specific date of adoption or a time range. 

The database additionally provides background information on the bodies that authored or adopted documents.

How to use it?

A guide for advanced search queries instructs users how to use wildcards and other powerful ways to perform queries in the database. For example, one can use ~ for proximity searches, meaning that “the status”~5 will find anything having “the” and “status” within a distance of 5 words, such as “the applicants’ potential victim status” or “the legal status”. With boolean functions such as AND, OR, and NOT, users could search for “retention AND acquisition NOT targeted” which will match anything containing both the words ‘retention’ and ‘acquisition’, and necessarily not containing the word ‘targeted’.

Next to quick and advanced full text searches, the database is also able to show connections between documents and bodies. By selecting a specific body, say the European Court of Human Rights, one can list all related judgments by clicking on the arrow symbol on the top right corner. The same goes for links between documents, e.g. judgments that reference other case law or litigation documents.

Snapshot of a database search in practice

The database also allows hyperlinks to specific pages in a document, such as the section about the work of the British Technology Advisory Panel on page 120 in IPCO’s Annual Report of 2018. It also provides an API (Application Programming Interface) that could, in the future, be used to visualise the collection of documents.

How to improve?

This publicly accessible database will hopefully make a contribution to closing the information gap on intelligence governance and serve as a tool to enable further research into this field. The initiators from the GUARDINT research team are open to any feedback on this database project. Going forward, with time and resources permitting, we hope to expand the body of catalogued documents. Language barriers can complicate the intake of documents from additional countries, because new documents need to be vetted for correctness and relevance. If readers from countries beyond the initial France, Germany, and the UK are interested in supporting the expansion of the database, we welcome you contacting us directly.

This research was funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation – Project Number 396819157).