Mass surveillance challenge proceeds to Europe’s highest human rights court

• Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights to hear case over UK Government bulk surveillance
• Groups seek ruling from Grand Chamber that would put an end to bulk surveillance powers

The case against the UK Government’s bulk surveillance powers will be heard by the highest chamber of Europe’s human rights court, it was announced today.

The Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) will hear a case previously decided by a lower Chamber and brought by Liberty, Privacy International, Amnesty International and several other international human rights organisations.

The human rights organisations are seeking a definitive judgment that would put an end to bulk interception of communications.

Building on our win

Last September, Liberty, Privacy International and Amnesty International were among the 14 rights groups and two individuals that won a landmark victory at the ECtHR. After a five year legal battle, judges found the UK surveillance regime revealed by the whistleblower Edward Snowden was illegal.

The Court found that the UK’s historical bulk interception regime violated the right to privacy protected by Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and to free expression, protected by Article 10.
However, the judgment did not go far enough with regard to the unlawfulness of bulk interception powers and the fundamental shortcomings in inter-state intelligence sharing based on communications intercepts. Liberty, Privacy International, Amnesty International and others have therefore requested the European Court to have the case referred to its highest judicial bench, the Grand Chamber.

A panel of judges has today accepted the organisations’ request to have the Grand Chamber decide on the issue of Government bulk surveillance powers, and how they impinge upon human rights.

Megan Goulding, lawyer for Liberty, said:
“The surveillance regime that the UK Government has built seriously undermines our freedom. Spying on vast numbers of people without suspicion of wrongdoing violates everyone’s rights to privacy and free expression, and can never be lawful.

“We welcome the opportunity from the Court to prove that indiscriminate state snooping is incompatible with our rights. We need a rights-respecting and targeted surveillance system – not one where everyone is treated as a suspect as they go about their everyday lives.”

Lucy Claridge, Director of Strategic Litigation at Amnesty International, said:

“The UK government’s mass surveillance practices are way beyond the pale. It is high time to come to terms with the fact that people’s rights to privacy and freedom of expression are not expendable commodities. The practice of using surveillance indiscriminately and without judicial authorisation must end, and this case provides a major opportunity for the European Court to right this wrong for good.

Lucy Claridge, Director of Strategic Litigation

“Industrial scale mass surveillance makes it incredibly difficult for organisations such as Amnesty International to carry out their vital human rights work. It’s critical that they are able to seek and receive information of public interest from their confidential sources, free from government intrusion.”

Caroline Wilson Palow, General Counsel at Privacy International, said:

“The UK Government continues to intercept enormous volumes of internet traffic flowing across its borders. And it continues to have access to similarly vast troves of information intercepted by the US Government. We call on the Court to reject these mass surveillance practices and find that they are fundamentally incompatible with the rights to privacy and freedom of expression enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights.”

Background to the case

The case began in 2013, following Edward Snowden’s revelations that GCHQ was secretly intercepting, processing and storing data concerning millions of people’s private communications, even when those people were of clearly of no intelligence interest (the ‘Tempora’ programme).
Snowden also revealed that the Government was accessing communications and data collected by the USA’s National Security Agency and other countries’ intelligence agencies.

All of this was taking place without public consent or awareness and with no proper safeguards. The information collected and stored by the Government can reveal the most intimate aspects of a person’s private life – including who they are, where they go, who they contact, which internet sites they visit, what their opinion is.

In 2014, the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) – 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 challenged in the ECtHR.

However, during these initial proceedings, the IPT found that UK intelligence agencies had unlawfully spied on the communications of Amnesty International and South Africa’s Legal Resources Centre. The tribunal 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.

On 13 September 2018, the ECtHR ruled that UK laws enabling mass surveillance violate rights to privacy and freedom of expression.

Press enquiries should be directed to Alison Abrahams on alison.abrahams@amnesty.org +32 2 548 27 73 or +32 483 680 812