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UK: Landmark ruling confirms GCHQ mass surveillance violated human rights

Surveillance cameras
Surveillance cameras © Vicente Mendez

Judgment comes after eight-year legal battle sparked by Edward Snowden revelations

UK intelligence agencies unlawfully spied on Amnesty’s communications

‘The unfettered harvesting and processing of millions of people’s private communications must end’ - Kate Logan

In response to a ruling by the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights today that the UK government’s bulk interception of communications powers violated the rights to privacy and freedom of expression, Kate Logan, Senior Legal Counsel at Amnesty International, said:

“Today’s ruling marks a significant step forward in condemning surveillance at the whim of the government.

“The unfettered harvesting and processing of millions of people’s private communications must end.

“Significantly, the court made clear that countries cannot delegate the power to authorise surveillance to the executive branch of government, nor treat hundreds of millions of people’s private communications as a free-for-all commodity.”

In its ruling, the Grand Chamber condemned the absence of independent authorisation of bulk interception warrant, flaws in the information required in interception warrant applications, the lack of proper authorisation related to the selection of communications, and insufficient oversight to provide adequate guarantees against abuse. 

Edwards Snowden’s revelations

The case was brought by Amnesty International, Liberty, Privacy International and several other civil rights organisations following US whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations that the UK intelligence agency GCHQ was secretly intercepting and processing the private communications of millions of people on a daily basis. 

Snowden’s revelations in 2013 showed that GCHQ was secretly intercepting millions of private communications even when these were clearly of no intelligence interest (the “Tempora” programme). The information collected and stored by the Government was able to reveal the most intimate aspects of a person’s private life - where they go, who they contact, which internet sites they visit and when. 

In 2014, the Investigatory Powers Tribunal - the highly secretive UK court which hears claims against GCHQ, MI5 and MI6 - ruled that these practices may in principle comply with the UK’s human rights obligations. This was the finding subsequently challenged in the European Court of Human Rights, which partly ruled against the UK in 2018. However, the judgment did not go far enough, and the coalition brought the case to the Grand Chamber. 

UK Government spied on Amnesty

In the course of its proceedings, the Investigatory Powers Tribunal found that UK intelligence agencies had unlawfully spied on the communications of Amnesty and the South African organisation Legal Resources Centre. It also found that UK intelligence- sharing with the US, which had been governed under a secret legal framework, was unlawful until disclosed during the proceedings. 

Eight years of legal challenge

Today’s ruling, by Europe’s highest judicial body, is the culmination of eight years of revelations and legal challenges by a coalition of civil rights organisations, including: the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International, Bytes for All, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, the Legal Resources Centre, Liberty and Privacy International; Big Brother Watch, Open Rights Group, English Pen and Dr Constanze Kurz; the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and Alice Ross.

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