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UK mass surveillance programme violates human rights, European court rules

The Independent logo The Independent 13/09/2018

The court case comes after former Central Intelligence Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden exposed the mass surveillance strategies employed by the US and UK governments (file photo) © AP The court case comes after former Central Intelligence Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden exposed the mass surveillance strategies employed by the US and UK governments (file photo) The UK government’s mass surveillance programme violated privacy with “no real safeguards”, the European Court of Human Rights has said in a landmark ruling.

The Strasbourg court said the "bulk interception regime" violated the right to respect for private and family life, since there was “insufficient oversight" of the selection of intercepted communications for examination.

Safeguards governing the selection of data for examination were “inadequate”, the ruling said.

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The court also found "the regime for obtaining communications data from communications service providers" violated the same human right.

GCHQ's (the Government Communications Headquarters') interception regime also violated article 10 – the right to freedom of expression – because there was insufficient protections for journalistic sources, it said.

But the court ruled that sharing the information with foreign governments did not violate human rights.

Undated handout file photo issued by GCHQ of the GCHQ building in Cheltenham. © PA Undated handout file photo issued by GCHQ of the GCHQ building in Cheltenham.

The legal case, brought by charities including human rights group Big Brother Watch and Amnesty International, comes after former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed the US and UK governments were gathering communications on a “population scale”.

Although the government replaced the contested RIPA powers with the Investigatory Powers Act (IPA) in November 2016, the judgment will provoke further questions about the spying powers granted by the more recent legislation, according to Big Brother Watch.

Silkie Carlo, director of the group, 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.

Edward Snowden speaks via video link during a news conference in New York © Reuters Edward Snowden speaks via video link during a news conference in New York

“Under the guise of counter-terrorism, the UK has adopted the most authoritarian surveillance regime of any Western state, corroding democracy itself and the rights of the British public.

“This judgment is a vital step towards protecting millions of law-abiding citizens from unjustified intrusion. However, since the new Investigatory Powers Act arguably poses an ever greater threat to civil liberties, our work is far from over.”

Megan Goulding, a lawyer for Liberty, said: “This is a major victory for the rights and freedom of people in the UK. It shows that there is – and should be – a limit to the extent that states can spy on their citizens.

“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.”

Antonia Byatt, director of English PEN, a writers’ association said: “This judgment confirms that the British government’s surveillance practices have violated not only our right to privacy, but our right to freedom of expression too.

“Excessive surveillance discourages whistle-blowing and discourages investigative journalism. The government must now take action to guarantee our freedom to write and to read freely online.”

Dan Carey of Deighton Pierce Glynn, a solicitor representing the applicants, said the ECHR had showed the government it did not have “a free hand” when it came to spying on its citizens.

“In several key respects the UK’s laws and surveillance practices have failed,” he continued. ”In particular, there needs to be much greater control over the search terms that the government is using to sift our communications.”

The Independent has contacted the Home Office for comment.

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