Britain’s mass surveillance faulted by European rights court in landmark ruling

14 September, 2018, 17:10 | Author: Wade Massey
  • The case against the UK was brought by a group of journalists and rights activists

The judgement is not final, as it can be appealed to the grand chamber of the Strasbourg court.

However, the ECHR ruled that the processes used to share the intelligence with foreign governments was not in violation of privacy or human rights standards.

They concluded that the mass trawling for information by Britain's GCHQ spy agency violated Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights regarding the right to privacy because there was "insufficient oversight" of the programme.

The matter first came to light in 2013 when NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed British surveillance practices-namely that the government intercepts social media, messages, and phone calls regardless of criminal record or suspicions of criminal activity.

The UK's bulk interception powers, exposed by the whistleblower Edward Snowden, have been found to be illegal by the European Court of Human Rights.

"While there is no evidence to suggest that the intelligence services are abusing their powers, the Court is not persuaded that the safeguards governing the selection of bearers for interception and the selection of intercepted material for examination are sufficiently robust to provide adequate guarantees against abuse", the Court's ruling stated.

Following the revelations, a group of 14 privacy and human rights groups headed by nonprofit Big Brother Watch brought claims against GCHQ, which were heard first in the UK's Investigatory Powers Tribunal - a special court set up specifically to hold intelligence agencies to account - and later in the European Court of Human Rights. The court also found that the system for obtaining communications data from service providers breached human-rights laws, but concluded the way the United Kingdom shares digital intelligence with foreign governments is legal. However, the ruling did find that individuals' privacy rights applied from the moment communications and data were captured by surveillance systems-not just when they were viewed or processed by human analysts.

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On the second point, the court noted particular concern about the way in which the government could search and examine this related data - the who, when and where of a communication - "apparently without restriction".

Following the Snowden revelations, the rules were replaced in November 2016 by the Investigatory Powers Act, a new law that effectively puts mass surveillance powers on a statutory footing.

Gavin Millar QC, also counsel for TBIJ, said: "The government must now rewrite the law as to how the security and intelligence service can look at and use journalists confidential communications and material".

The British government said it would give "careful consideration" to the court's findings.

Civil liberties campaigners who brought the case hailed the judgment as a landmark victory against the mass surveillance that governments have defended as an important tool in fighting terrorism.

"We will push on with our High Court challenge against the Investigatory Powers Act and I'm sure we'll draw on the judgement of today to explain why it means that act is also unlawful", she added.

Commenting on the ECHR's ruling, Silkie Carlo, director of Big Brother Watch, said: "This landmark judgment confirming that the UK's mass spying breached fundamental rights vindicates Mr Snowden's courageous whistleblowing and the tireless work of Big Brother Watch and others in our pursuit for justice".

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