European court rules that some United Kingdom surveillance violates privacy rules

General view of the 24-hour operations room at GCHQ in Cheltenham England

General view of the 24-hour operations room at GCHQ in Cheltenham England

Mass surveillance carried out by British intelligence agency GCHQ violated the European Convention on Human Rights, a court ruled Thursday.

Liberty joined with the ACLU, Amnesty International, Privacy International, and 13 other organizations to challenge the Snooper's Charter, officially known as the Investigatory Powers Act, after former U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden revealed that the United Kingdom was obtaining and storing massive amounts of data about communications throughout the country.

The human rights groups did not get what they wanted from the U.K.'s intelligence services watchdog, the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, which said GCHQ's use of NSA-intercepted data had been illegal, but became legal when people found out about it, thanks to Snowden.

Both regimes were also found in breach of Article 10 on the right to freedom of expression, as there were insufficient safeguards in respect of confidential journalistic material.

Communications data covers information such as who sent a message or made a phone call, when and where this happened - but not the content.

The violations concerned in particular shortcomings when it came to selecting the internet service providers involved, as well as the search criteria used to filter and select intercepted communications for assessment.

They concluded that the mass trawling for information by Britain's GCHQ spy agency violated Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights regarding the right to privacy because there was "insufficient oversight" of the programme.

Following the Snowden revelations, the rules were replaced in November 2016 by the Investigatory Powers Act, a new law that effectively puts mass surveillance powers on a statutory footing.

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The court said the system governing the bulk interception of communications was "incapable" of keeping interference to what is "necessary in a democratic society" for two reasons.

"In bulk, the degree of intrusion is magnified, since the patterns that will emerge could be capable of painting an intimate picture of a person through the mapping of social networks, location tracking, internet browsing tracking, mapping of communication patterns, and insight into who a person interacted with".

Snowden also revealed that the Government was accessing communications and data collected by the USA's National Security Agency and other countries' intelligence agencies.

The court has been ordered to pay the first group of applicants, led by Big Brother Watch, €150,000 of their claimed costs and the second group (the Bureau and Ross) €35,000. This was the finding challenged in the European Court of Human Rights.

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. Following this concession, the High Court ordered the Government to amend the relevant provisions of the Act.

"So whilst we have had success in court this time, the Government has since introduced a new legal framework to do even more extensive surveillance so we still really need the public support because we really have our work cut out".

But that argument doesn't convince critics of the Investigatory Powers Act - legislation which those opposed to it have previous labelled as "the most extreme surveillance law ever passed in a democracy".

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