UK mass surveillance programme violated human rights, European Court rules

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The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg, in the case of ‘Big Brother Watch and Others v. The United Kingdom’ ruled that the UK’s programme of mass surveillance, the so-called Tempora, revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden, violated the right to privacy of those targeted.  Three aspects of digital surveillance were considered by the judges: bulk interception of communications, intelligence sharing, and obtaining of communications data from communications service providers. By a majority of five to two votes, the judges found that UK’s Government Communications Headquarters’ (GCHQ) bulk interception regime violated article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. However, the court found that the GCHQ’s regime for sharing digital intelligence with foreign governments did not violate article 8 or article 10, therefore was not illegal. This means that sharing with foreign governments did not violate either the right to a private and family life, or to free speech. The judgment also says that not enough protection was given to journalistic sources and that the bulk interception violated the right to freedom of information. The claims were brought by a coalition of 14 human rights groups, privacy organisations and journalists, which include Amnesty International, Liberty, Privacy International, and Big Brother Watch, among others, upon the revelations made by Snowden in 2013, which showed GCHQ’s programme Tempora secretly intercepting, processing, and storing data about millions of people’s private communications, even those who were of no intelligence interest. The judgment cites: ‘The United Kingdom authorities have neither confirmed nor denied the existence of an operation codenamed Tempora.’ The director of the Big Brother Watch, Silkie Carlo, stated: ‘This landmark judgment confirming that the UK’s mass spying breached fundamental rights vindicates Mr Snowden’s courageous whistleblowing and the tireless work of Big Brother Watch and others in our pursuit for justice. This judgment is a vital step towards protecting millions of law-abiding citizens from unjustified intrusion. However, since the new Investigatory Powers Act arguably poses an ever greater threat to civil liberties, our work is far from over.’

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