Published: Fri, September 14, 2018

European Court rules United Kingdom surveillance program violated human rights

European Court rules United Kingdom surveillance program violated human rights

Data can be legally collected in bulk if it can be justified in the interests of national security, but safeguards must be put in place. While the case has no direct impact on United States intelligence gathering, the case could have a ripple effect because of the close connections between USA and UK intelligence and law enforcement organizations. "The decision sends a clear message that similar surveillance programs, such as those conducted by the NSA, are also incompatible with human rights", claimed ACLU attorney Patrick Toomey. Europe's human rights court is about to publish what could be a landmark ruling on the legality of mass surveillance. And the court did not find that the surveillance itself was illegal.

'Furthermore, there were no real safeguards applicable to the selection of related communications data for examination, even though this data could reveal a great deal about a person's habits and contacts, ' the court statement said.

They wrote: "In view of the potential chilling effect that any perceived interference with the confidentiality of journalists' communications and, in particular, their sources might have on the freedom of the press, the Court found that the bulk interception regime was also in violation of article 10".

Specifically, the court said there wasn't enough independent scrutiny of processes used by British intelligence services to sift through data and communications intercepted in bulk.

Judges voted six to one the effort by its intelligence agency GCHQ for obtaining data from communications providers was "not in accordance with the law", and there were "insufficient safeguards in respect of confidential journalistic material".

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.


The parts of United Kingdom law that were found to be problematic by the Court are similar to aspects of the PATRIOT Act in the U.S. that have enabled the most controversial parts of USA mass surveillance. The scope for unrestricted snooping "could be capable of painting an intimate picture of a person" through mapping of social networks and communication patterns, browsing and location tracking, and understanding who a person is interacting with, the court said. "The Court recognizes how revealing metadata can be to people's lives", Toomey told Ars.

Mass surveillance in and of itself, however, was not found to be a violation of the charter.

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

Civil liberties groups are set to continuing fighting a number of cases related to surveillance and while rulings have gone against the government, nothing has changed; the Investigatory Powers Act is still the same as it was in 2016 and the government doesn't look to be in any rush to alter it, despite these losses.

The government also argues that because the ruling focuses old legislation - the case was first brought about in 2013 - it doesn't necessarily apply to the current incarnation of surveillance law which was introduced at a later date.

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