ECHR Rules British Mass Surveillance Regime Violates European Law

Edward Snowden leaked information about intelligence programmes

The European Court of Human Rights has today ruled that United Kingdom laws enabling mass surveillance violate the rights to privacy and freedom of expression.

The court stated there is "insufficient oversight" and "inadequate safeguards" over the government's "bulk interception" of communications.

The court also gave a green light to procedures British security services use to get intelligence from foreign spy agencies, saying the intelligence-sharing regime doesn't violate the convention's privacy provisions.

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". "In reaching this conclusion, the Court found that the operation of a bulk interception regime did not in and of itself violate the Convention", a spokesperson for the court said in a statement on the case, "but noted that such a regime had to respect criteria set down in its case-law".

Its ruling said the regime covering acquisition of data from communications service providers breached Article 8 as it was not in accordance with the law.

Critics argue that the new law has simply made a lot of what was previously going on under the radar more transparent, and does not change the material concerns about the lawfulness of the activities themselves.

The British government's counsel, James Eadie, said at that time the programmes were necessary in the fight against terrorism.

The court said the way in which the GCHQ selected internet providers for intercepting data, then filtered the messages and selected which data to examine lacked oversight.

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"The judgment also rightly recognises that collecting communications data - the who, what, and where of our communications - is as intrusive as collecting the content".

In contrast, related communications data is capable "of painting an intimate picture of a person" through mapping social networks, location tracking and insight of who they interacted with.

And in a further victory for the 16 complainants the court ruled that the program provided "insufficient safeguards in respect of confidential journalistic material", violating Article 10 on the convention dealing with freedom of expression and information.

Among the more than one dozen groups that took the case to Strasbourg were the London-based Big Brother Watch organisation, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and former Guardian reporter Alice Ross.

Police and intelligence agencies need covert surveillance powers to tackle the threats we face today - but the court has ruled that those threats do not justify spying on every citizen without adequate protections'. Today, the Court has ruled the UK's surveillance illegal, despite arguments that the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA) and its replacement the Investigatory Powers Act 2016 (IPA) made it legal.

That said access to retained data must only be granted for cases of serious crime, and that authorisation should come from an independent body, not public authorities.

However, the court ruled that information sharing with foreign governments didn't break the ECHR, ruling there was no evidence of abuse or significant shortcomings.

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