Privacy rights groups have appeared before the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) to argue against the UK Government’s mass surveillance practices.
The hearing saw government lawyers defend bulk surveillance practices and even admit that the court’s confidential emails could be snooped upon by British intelligence services.
The campaign groups, which include Big Brother Watch, English PEN and the Open Rights Group, launched the legal challenge in 2013 following revelations of mass surveillance by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. Documents leaked by Snowden revealed that GCHQ was intercepting and capturing the communications of millions of people.
Last year, the ECHR ruled that mass interception programmes breached the European Convention on Human Rights due to their lack of appropriate safeguards. The judgement marked the Court’s first ruling on mass surveillance since the Snowden leaks. However, privacy rights groups sought to push the case up the Grand Chamber and insisted the judgement did not go far enough in underlining the illegality of mass surveillance practices.
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Silkie Carlo, director of Big Brother Watch, commented: “This is the last stand in our legal challenge against the UK’s secret mass surveillance practices, revealed by Ed Snowden. The rights of millions of citizens to be free from unwarranted state spying hang in the balance. The outcome of this challenge is critical and will not only affect Brits but will set a precedent across Europe.
“This challenge will determine whether human rights frameworks are able to protect democracies from the surveillance creep that recent technological leaps have enabled. The stakes are incredibly high and the Grand Chamber now has a vital opportunity to protect the future of the right to privacy in Europe.”
At the hearing yesterday, government representatives admitted that the purpose of bulk surveillance “is not to search for the communications of identified targets”, but instead to gather mass data and establish “who should be a target”.
Government lawyers revealed that UK intelligence policy is to search for “unknown unknowns” – a term which Big Brother Watch said is a “widely-ridiculed phrase” used during the run-up to the Iraq War.
The deployment of “automated rules” and “computerised searches” to sift through intercepted calls, emails and internet records was also acknowledged by government representatives. The campaign groups argued that this policy is unlawful as it cannot be considered necessary or proportionate in a democratic society and “treats everyone as under suspicion”.
Acting for the Government, Sir James Eadie QC outlined the scale of the UK’s mass surveillance practices, stating: “To the extent that the sting of the question is, have you got lots of data even at the end of the filtering process, the answer to that question is yes – and a jolly good thing, too.”
Eadie went on to tell Judge Albuquerque that UK intelligence agencies could intercept confidential and legally-privileged emails sent by the ECHR to UK-based colleagues.
“It might be caught, because bulk interception is bulk interception – so one would not know,” he conceded.
Big Brother Watch and others told the Grand Chamber that the UK’s current practices “put at risk the very values” which are protected by the European Convention on Human Rights – legislation which terrorism “seeks to undermine”.
The Grand Chamber is expected to deliver a definitive judgement on the compatibility of mass communications surveillance with the European Convention on Human Rights by early 2020.