UK surveillance violated human rights, ECHR rules

Judges decide that mass collection and interception of communications data failed to ensure necessary safeguards

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has ruled that the collection and interception of communications data by UK security services was in contravention of human rights.

The court announced this week that, by a margin of five votes to two, judges ruled that the bulk interception of communications data by GCHQ violated citizens’ right to respect for a private life. This right is enshrined as article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

However, judges noted that “the operation of a bulk interception regime did not, in and of itself, violate the convention”, but that the UK’s operation of such a regime failed to adequately implement necessary safeguards.

The security services’ gathering of communications data from telecoms firms also violated article 8, six out of seven judges agreed. The same amount ruled that both the interception and collection of data violated citizens right to freedom of expression – article 10 of the convention.

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But all but one judge also ruled that the UK’s sharing of intelligence with overseas governments violated neither article 8 nor 10.  

Judges also unanimously ruled that the UK’s procedures allowing citizens and groups to legally challenge secret surveillance do not contravene the right to a fair trial or the prohibition of discrimination, which are article 6 and 14 of the rights convention, respectively.

This week’s rulings follow complaints made last year by Big Brother Watch, working alongside other advocacy groups.

In an FAQ document published to accompany the decisions, the ECHR said that “a state may operate a bulk interception regime if it considers that it is necessary in the interests of national security”. But, to comply with rights treaties, the court stipulates that a country’s domestic law must contain six “safeguards” to protect citizens’ human rights.

The document added: “The safeguards are that the national law must clearly indicate: the nature of offences which may give rise to an interception order; a definition of the categories of people liable to have their communications intercepted; a limit on the duration of interception; the procedure to be followed for examining, using and storing the data obtained; the precautions to be taken when communicating the data to other parties; and the circumstances in which intercepted data may or must be erased or destroyed.”

If they are not happy with the judges’ decisions, both the complainants and the government have the option to request that the case now be referred to the ECHR’s grand chamber.

Silkie Carlo, director of Big Brother Watch, said: “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.”

Sam Trendall

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