ECtHR finds UK Government in violation of privacy and freedom of expression over mass surveillance

The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has found the UK government in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) following applications made by various journalists and human rights groups with regards to the legality of the UK’s mass surveillance programmes.

Three different applications were made to the Court complaining about three particular aspects of the UK’s surveillance regime: the bulk interception of communications, the obtaining of communications data from communications service providers, and the sharing of intelligence with foreign governments. This was on foot of leaks from Edward Snowdon on Operation ‘Tempora’ in which the UK government accessed and stored large volumes of data from 100,000 ‘Internet bearers’.

Each application claimed that these surveillance programmes were in violation of Article 8 of the ECHR – the right to respect for private and family life and correspondence. Two of the applicants maintained that there was a breach of Article 10 (freedom of expression) stating that such surveillance regimes interfered with their work as journalists and NGOs. One of the applicants also argued that there was an infringement of Article 6 (right to fair trial) referring to the procedures used to challenge surveillance regimes in the UK and Article 14 (prohibition of discrimination) as non-UK communications were more likely to be intercepted and examined.

The ECtHR found that the bulk interception of communications by the UK government did in fact violate Article 8, as there were shortfalls with regards to the filtering, searching and selecting of intercepted communications for examination, and that the safeguarding of selected communication data was ineffective.

Article 8 was also found to have been violated by the UK’s surveillance regime for obtaining communications data from communications service providers. Under EU law, any surveillance regime accessing the data kept by communication service providers must only be done in investigations relating to serious crime. Therefore, it was held that such a regime was an interference with rights that was not in accordance with law.

The Court also agreed that both the interception of communications and the collection of data from service providers also violated Article 10 as there were no safeguards present in either regime to protect confidential journalistic sources and material.

The Court, however, did not believe that there was a violation of Article 8 in relation to the sharing of intelligence between foreign governments, as it was observed that there was no evidence of any shortcomings in the application or operation of this procedure, and that the processes through which information is shared is clearly set out in domestic legislation which does not contravene with the Convention or EU law. The Court also dismissed the complaints surrounding Article 6 and Article 14.

Click here for the full judgement.

Click here for ECHR press release.

Click here for further analysis on the UK Human Rights Blog.




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