European Court challenges UK intelligence on mass surveillance

8 Nov 2017

European Court of Human Rights, Strasbourg. Image: Hadrian/Shutterstock

Representatives from the UK government appeared in front of the European Court of Human Rights this week as the country’s bulk data collection was questioned.

Big Brother Watch, Liberty, Privacy International and a number of other human rights and journalistic groups in Europe, Asia and Africa yesterday (7 November) challenged the UK on its bulk data collection policy.

They argued that the allowance of UK intelligence and security agencies to intercept data is a breach of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

Mass surveillance revelations

There are three separate cases being brought against UK authorities, all of which stem from Edward Snowden’s 2013 revelations about mass state surveillance around the world.

According to The Intercept, a panel of 10 judges at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, held a hearing to look at the large-scale electronic spying strategies of the UK government.

The ECHR is still applicable to the UK despite its decision to vote for Brexit in June 2016, and the court’s judgments could mean major changes for how these surveillance operations will be carried out in future.

The groups taking the case argued that the programmes violate four rights protected under the ECHR: the right to a fair trial, the right not to be discriminated against, the right to freedom of expression and the right to privacy. They said that the data collection was both untargeted and disproportionate.

The UK GCHQ has been found to have used social media for its mass surveillance activities, according to documentation obtained by Privacy International publicised in October of this year. A 2015 tribunal found government monitoring at the time to be unlawful.

The UK authorities said it carries out “bulk surveillance” rather than “mass surveillance” and insisted that it is a necessary procedure to locate unknown threats.

A lawyer for the government argued that it is only a violation of privacy where there is “sentient examination” of communications – for example, when a human reads or listens in on messages or calls.

A watershed moment

Amnesty International senior legal counsel Nick Williams said the case was a “watershed moment for people’s privacy and freedom of expression”.

Scarlet Kim of Privacy International added: “These practices are unlawful and violate the fundamental rights of individuals across the world, assailing privacy and chilling thought and speech.”

The UK Home Office said: “We will vigorously defend the powers our agencies need to keep us all safe and secure.”

A ruling date has yet to be confirmed, but The Register speculates that it could be early 2018.

European Court of Human Rights, Strasbourg. Image: Hadrian/Shutterstock

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects