Why we're challenging the UK's surveillance laws in court today

By Rachel Logan and Joshua Franco

One Wednesday afternoon in July 2015, a one-paragraph e-mail arrived at the offices of Amnesty International. The e-mail was from the UK Investigatory Powers Tribunal, and it confirmed that the UK government had been spying on Amnesty’s communications.

What's more, by retaining our data for longer than their policies allowed they’d broken their own rules in the way they’d done it.

There were many unanswered questions. How big was the fishing net our data had been trawled up in? What exactly had been intercepted? Who had our communications been shared with? The USA, other countries with more repressive governments? 

We still don’t know the answers to these questions. What we do know is that mass surveillance is a major threat to human rights.

That’s why today we're joining other international NGOs including the American Civil Liberties Union, Liberty, and Privacy International at the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Strasbourg.

We are there to call an end to the UK government’s mass surveillance and unregulated data sharing.

Aggressive and insufficiently controlled surveillance powers – whether inherently unlawful mass surveillance programmes like those Edward Snowden exposed in the UK and USA, or abusive targeted activities – pose a huge risk to human rights defenders, journalists and others the world over.

Surveillance is another way of discouraging or preventing people from exercising their rights
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We’ve seen in other countries how surveillance laws and practices can have a deeply damaging effect on communities and societies.

For example, activists and journalists in Belarus told Amnesty International how the widespread fear of surveillance makes it nearly impossible for them to carry out daily activities like sending emails, making phone calls or organizing meetings.

This is compounded by laws that criminalize basic freedoms like holding unauthorized protests, As a result, their ability to exercise their human rights and to participate in the political life of the country is severely curtailed.

In principle if I am talking indoors, or on the phone, or writing emails, I assume it all gets to the KGB
Belarusian activist

One Belarusian activist told us:

“In principle if I am talking indoors, or on the phone, or writing emails, I assume it all gets to the KGB.” 

Human rights defenders, in Belarus and elsewhere, are often forced to self-censor out of fear, and refrain from exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly.

In a world where those in power are increasingly pushing a harmful narrative which undermines human rights, the rights to privacy, association and expression are more important than ever.

Surveillance is another way of discouraging or preventing people from exercising these rights.

It bears emphasizing that much of the harm that flows from systems of secret, unlawful surveillance like that in Belarus comes from the uncertainty that surrounds them. Even the threat of surveillance can have a chilling effect.

Activists in Belarus jokingly refer to mobile phones as “the police officer in your pocket.” You cannot know whether your phone is tracking you or listening to you – but it could be.

Uncertainty and secrecy are also key features of the UK system
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One Belarusian activist noted that in order for civil society to be kept in check, the government need not resort to jailing people or threatening them. With surveillance, “it’s enough for people to feel it exists.”

Uncertainty and secrecy are also key features of the UK system.

When Edward Snowden first exposed the British Tempora programme - mass interception and collection of private communications between ordinary individuals in the UK and outside - there was well-justified shock and anger worldwide.

When asked what laws Parliament had passed to permit this kind of widespread surveillance of innocent people, the government responded with hastily cobbled together, partial answers.

'Neither confirm nor deny’ was the response to almost every reasoned challenge.

Since then, and since Amnesty first started this case against the UK government in the Investigatory Powers Tribunal back in 2013, there has been a complete overhaul of the domestic legal framework for communications surveillance.

The Investigatory Powers Act 2016 (IPA) supposedly tidies up and brings together all the various bits of legislation used to justify spying on us all in one more accessible place. It also writes into that law exactly the kind of invasive practices that we are challenging - and expands on them.

The IPA permits, among other things, bulk collection and interception of communications and bulk hacking (yes – just like in Belarus, your phone may be keeping the spooks here up to date with what you’re doing, even though you’re not doing anything illegal).

It also forces internet companies to store everyone’s internet browsing activity for 12 months and give a huge range of government agencies, from HMRC to the NHS, access to those records.

There are supposedly some new safeguards in the law, but none of them come anywhere near sufficiently protecting people from having their rights abused.

They also don’t include any protections for confidential communication of human rights defenders in the UK or abroad, or any regulation of how the captured data is shared with foreign governments.

Perhaps worst of all is that the UK government is touting this as a gold standard approach, fit for replication across Europe and beyond.

That’s why Amnesty International is challenging the UK’s unlawful surveillance in Strasbourg today. Although technically it’s the previous legal framework we’re challenging, if we succeed this case should require a wholesale re-write of the IPA, since the same principles will apply to the new more intrusive law.

It should also prevent similar laws being passed in other Council of Europe states, and send a strong message further afield about abusive surveillance.

What the Court decides not only has the potential to stop human rights abuses in the UK, but also to stop this worrying trend from spreading. 

Human rights defenders around the world are watching the ECtHR today, hoping that it will set a legal precedent that upholds their rights, and protects them from the spreading tentacles of mass surveillance.

For more information about Amnesty International’s work with human rights defenders check out our BRAVE campaign