British spies violated privacy and free speech laws, European court rules

Elias Hubbard
September 13, 2018

"In light of today's judgment, it is even clearer that these powers do not meet the criteria for proportionate surveillance and that the United Kingdom government is continuing to breach our right to privacy".

In a landmark case brought by charities including Amnesty and human rights group Big Brother Watch, the top court ruled that the "bulk interception regime" breached rights to privacy (Article 8).

The case brought by civil liberties, human rights and journalism groups and campaigners challenged British surveillance and intelligence-sharing practices revealed by American whistleblower Edward Snowden.

The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that Britain's programme of mass surveillance, revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden as part of his sensational leaks on United States spying, violated people's right to privacy.

The judges ruled against the 16 complainants on the question of whether Britain further violated their privacy by sharing intelligence with foreign governments, saying that did not constitute a breach of their rights.

It is the first time the court has considered these United Kingdom regimes, and the first time it has ever considered intelligence-sharing programmes.

The court did not say that carrying out bulk interception was unlawful in and of itself - but rather that the oversight of that apparatus was insufficient.

"The Investigatory Powers Act 2016 replaced large parts of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) which was the subject of this challenge", she said.

The Guardian noted that the ruling is the first major legal blow to United Kingdom intelligence's bulk interception and surveillance of private messages.

GCHQ, short for Government Communication Headquarters, continues to publicly neither confirm not deny the existence of programs with these codenames.

The court said the system governing the bulk interception of communications was "incapable" of keeping interference to what is "necessary in a democratic society" for two reasons.

The ruling cited a "lack of oversight of the entire selection process" and "the absence of any real safeguards".

It said: "The content of an electronic communication might be encrypted and, even if it were decrypted, might not reveal anything of note about the sender or recipient".

In their ruling, judges declared there was insufficient monitoring of what information was being collected and that some safeguards were "inadequate".

A collection of 14 human rights organizations, journalists and privacy groups had told the court that the practices were in violation of human rights.

But the ruling wasn't all bad for British spies.

However, the Investigatory Powers Act is also being challenged, based on a 2016 judgment from the Court of Justice of the European Union that ruled indiscriminate data retention illegal.

The court did rule that a bulk operation on its own does not break the convention, but said that such a regime "had to respect criteria set down in its case law".

"This judgment is a vital step towards protecting millions of law-abiding citizens from unjustified intrusion".

Other reports by Click Lancashire

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