BRUSSELS—British intelligence services breached people’s basic right to privacy with a mass surveillance operation that was brought to light by the whistleblower Edward Snowden in 2013, the European Court of Human Rights ruled on Sept. 13.
Judges sitting in Strasbourg, France, said GCHQ’s bulk interception of online communications was untargeted and criticized spy bosses for failing to provide sufficient safeguards when handling people’s personal data.
The landmark ruling was the court’s first on the UK’s mass surveillance programs, which attracted a high level of criticism after Snowden, a former U.S. National Security Agency contractor, leaked their existence in 2013.
Today’s European Court #surveillance judgment is a major victory for everyone’s rights and freedoms.
— Liberty (@libertyhq) September 13, 2018
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.
In the judgment, they said that the regime of bulk interception didn’t in itself violate human-rights laws, but that the safeguards attached to it weren’t “sufficiently robust to provide adequate guarantees against abuse.” The court also found that the system for obtaining communications data from service providers breached human-rights laws, but concluded the way the UK shares digital intelligence with foreign governments is legal.
It ruled on the case after claims were brought by a coalition of 14 leading groups in the field of human rights and privacy including Amnesty International, Liberty, and Big Brother Watch. They argued the “population scale” surveillance revealed by Snowden’s leak infringed people’s rights to privacy, which are protected by Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
In its judgment, the ECHR said: “While the court does not doubt that related communications data is an essential tool for the intelligence services in the fight against terrorism and serious crime, it does not consider that the authorities have struck a fair balance between the competing public and private interests by exempting it in its entirety from the safeguards applicable to the searching and examining of content.”
Reacting to the decision, Snowden said: “For five long years, governments have denied that global mass surveillance violates your rights. And for five long years, we have chased them through the doors of every court. Today, we won.”
The UK’s surveillance programs included Tempora, a computer system that stored data from all internet traffic; Karma Police, which recorded a browsing profile for all internet users; and Black Hole, a digital library of more than a trillion pieces of data including search histories, emails, and instant messages.
“This is a major victory for the rights and freedom of people in the UK. It shows that there is—and should be—a limit to the extent that states can spy on their citizens,” said Megan Goulding, a lawyer for Liberty.
“Our government has built a surveillance regime more extreme than that of any other democratic nation, abandoning the very rights and freedoms that terrorists want to attack. It can and must give us an effective, targeted system that protects our safety, data security and fundamental rights.”
The judgment concerned the legality of actions taken by the British state, under now-defunct security rules known as the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA).
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.
“The Investigatory Powers Act 2016 replaced large parts of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, which was the subject of this challenge,” explained a UK government spokesperson.
“This includes the introduction of a ‘double lock’ which requires warrants for the use of these powers to be authorized by a Secretary of State and approved by a judge.
The spokesperson added that an investigatory powers commissioner has also been created to provide oversight of how surveillance is used.
“The government will give careful consideration to the court’s findings.”