ECHR Rules British Mass Surveillance Regime Violates European Law

Blanche Robertson
September 13, 2018

A mass surveillance programme by the United Kingdom government violated human rights, the European Court has ruled.

The judgement said: "While there is no evidence to suggest that the intelligence services are abusing their powers - on the contrary, the [then British watchdog] observed that the selection procedure was carefully and conscientiously undertaken by analysts, the court is not persuaded that the safeguards governing selection of bearers [internet cables] for interception and the selection of intercepted material for examination are sufficiently robust to provide adequate guarantees against abuse".

Furthermore, it found the United Kingdom "was not in accordance with the law" over it's obtaining of communications data from service providers.

"While the Court was satisfied that the intelligence services of the United Kingdom take their (European human rights) Convention obligations seriously and are not abusing their powers, it found that there was inadequate independent oversight of the selection and search processes involved in the operation", the court said in a statement.

The mass spying scheme did "not meet the "quality of law" requirement" and was "incapable of keeping the "interference" to what is "necessary in a democratic society", the ECHR said.

However, the ECHR ruled against the complainants on the question of whether United Kingdom gov further violated citizens' privacy by sharing intelligence with foreign governments, saying that did not constitute a breach of rights.

By related communications, the court said it meant the collection of details like who calls who, from where and when - rather than the content of the communications.

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"In bulk, the degree of intrusion is magnified, since the patterns that will emerge could be capable of painting an intimate picture of a person through the mapping of social networks, location tracking, internet browsing tracking, mapping of communication patterns, and insight into who a person interacted with".

The court had also been asked to consider whether there had been violations of other parts of the convention, but found that the arguments put forward for a number of these challenges were inadmissible.

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.

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

Thursday's ruling is not final and can be appealed.

Britain has changed its surveillance laws since the legal challenge began, passing new legislation the government says has more privacy safeguards.

"Under the guise of counter-terrorism, the United Kingdom has adopted the most authoritarian surveillance regime of any Western state, corroding democracy itself and the rights of the British public", said Silkie Carlo, director of Big Brother Watch. "However, since the new Investigatory Powers Act arguably poses an ever greater threat to civil liberties, our work is far from over".

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