Published: Sat, September 15, 2018
Worldwide | By Jermaine Blake

United Kingdom mass surveillance broke human rights convention, European court rules

United Kingdom mass surveillance broke human rights convention, European court rules

In 2014, the Investigatory Powers Tribunal - the highly secretive United Kingdom court which hears claims against GCHQ, MI5 and MI6 - ruled that these practices may in principle comply with the UK's human rights obligations.

The case, brought by a number of human rights and journalism organisations, is one of many challenges launched after the U.S. whistleblower, former NSA sysadmin Edward Snowden's 2013 revelations that GCHQ was secretly intercepting communications traffic via fibre-optic undersea cables.

The European Court of Human Rights says the complainants believe that British and USA spy agencies may have intercepted their electronic communications.

The Court's ruling isn't yet final: A Chamber judgement can be referred to the Grand Chamber any time within three months of its issuance, upon which a panel of five judges will decide whether the case merits further examination: If it does, it will be re-heard for a final judgement; if not, the Chamber judgement becomes final. Amnesty lawyer Nick Williams called it "a watershed moment for people's privacy and freedom of expression across the world".

'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.

"The Investigatory Powers Act 2016 replaced large parts of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) which was the subject of this challenge" said the spokesperson, who went onto detail how an Investigatory Powers Commissioner ensures "robust independent oversight" over how powers are used.

Human-rights judges were asked to assess whether Britain's practices relating to bulk interception of communications, intelligence sharing with foreign governments, and obtaining of data from service providers were legal.

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The European court also said that the programme for obtaining communications data from service providers violates article 8, which governs privacy, as well as article 10 as it does not provide adequate safeguards for respecting confidential journalistic material. Snowden revealed a number of GCHQ spying programs, including "Tempora", which stored all internet traffic in bulk; "Karma Police", which created a web-browsing profile for every visible internet user; and "Black Hole", a repository of over 1 trillion online events, including internet histories, email and message records, and social media activity.

The case was brought by a group of journalists and rights activists who believe that their data may have been targeted.

Silkie Carlo, director of Big Brother Watch, said the ruling is vindication for Snowden. In the ruling, handed down on 13 September, the Court ruled that the schemes violated the Article 8 right to privacy enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights.

In 2016, Parliament passed the Investigatory Powers Act in a massive overhaul of surveillance law. "This judgement is a vital step towards protecting millions of law-abiding citizens from unjustified intrusion".

It also threw out a set of complaints about the U.K. Investigatory Powers Tribunal being insufficiently independent and impartial.

The Government said it would give "careful consideration" to the court's findings.

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