UK: Europe’s top court rules UK mass surveillance regime violated human rights

In a landmark judgment, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) today ruled that the UK government’s bulk interception of communications powers “did not contain sufficient ‘end-to-end’ safeguards to provide adequate and effective guarantees against arbitrariness and the risk of abuse”, thus violating the rights to privacy and freedom of expression.  

The case was brought by Amnesty International, Liberty, Privacy International and several other rights organizations, following whistleblower Edward Snowden’s 2013 revelation that the UK intelligence agency GCHQ was secretly intercepting and processing the private communications of millions of people on a daily basis.

The unfettered harvesting of millions of people’s private communications must end

Kate Logan, Senior Legal Counsel at Amnesty International

“The unfettered harvesting and processing of millions of people’s private communications must end. Today’s ruling marks a significant step forward in condemning surveillance at the whim of the government”, said Kate Logan, Senior Legal Counsel at Amnesty International.

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

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

Today’s decision takes us another step closer to scrapping these dangerous, oppressive surveillance powers

Liberty lawyer Megan Goulding

Liberty lawyer Megan Goulding said: 

“We all want to have control over our personal information, and to have a Government that respects our right to privacy and our freedom of expression. That’s what makes today’s victory, and the Court’s recognition of the dangers posed by these mass surveillance powers, so important.

“Bulk surveillance powers allow the State to collect data that can reveal a huge amount about any one of us – from our political views to our sexual orientation. These mass surveillance powers do not make us safer.

“Our right to privacy protects all of us. Today’s decision takes us another step closer to scrapping these dangerous, oppressive surveillance powers, and ensuring our rights are protected.”

Ilia Siatitsa, acting Legal Director at Privacy International said:

“Today’s ruling is an important win for privacy and freedom for everyone in the UK and beyond. Until the Snowden revelations, no one even knew about these mass surveillance regimes. It was all in the shadows, without any oversight or accountability. Since 2013, we were at least – and at last – able to scrutinise the intelligence agencies’ surveillance capabilities.

We will continue to fight against abusive mass surveillance powers and for stronger protections for everyone across the globe

Ilia Siatitsa, Acting Legal Director at Privacy International

“Today the Court reiterated that intelligence agencies cannot act on their own, in secret and in the absence of authorisation and supervision by independent authorities. They must be accountable because their capabilities to access personal data about each and every one of us – even if we’re not suspected of any wrongdoing – pose serious risks in a democratic society. The judgment offers some pieces of the puzzle for stronger protections in the future, but it is not the end. We will continue to fight against abusive mass surveillance powers and for stronger protections for everyone across the globe.”

Snowden’s revelations 

This ruling, by the highest judicial body of the 47-state strong Council of Europe region, is the culmination of eight years of revelations and legal challenges by a coalition of rights organizations.

In 2013, Edward Snowden revealed that GCHQ was secretly intercepting millions of people’s private communications, even when those people were clearly of no intelligence interest (the “Tempora” programme). The information collected and stored by the government can 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.

States cannot treat hundreds of millions of people’s private communications as a free-for-all commodity.

Kate Logan

In the course of its proceedings, the Investigatory Powers Tribunal found that UK intelligence agencies had unlawfully spied on the communications of Amnesty International, and the South African organization 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.

Parties in the case 

The case is the culmination of three original legal challenges from the following groups and individuals: 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.

Amnesty International and nine other applicants were represented by Ben Jaffey QC and Gayatri Sarathy of Blackstone Chambers, and David Heaton of Brick Court Chambers.