A group of humans rights organisations will take the British government to the European Court of Human Rights over allegedly indiscriminate mass surveillance of communications.
Amnesty International, Liberty, Privacy International and Bytes for All, along with several other partners will pursue the case based on documents provided by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden about the mass-scale spying programmes used by the UK and US known as Prism and Tempora. The NGOs believe the programmes contravene British citizens’ rights to privacy and freedom of expression, as enshrined in Articles 8 and 10 in the European Convention of Human Rights.
“The UK government’s surveillance practices have been allowed to continue unabated and on an unprecedented scale, with major consequences for people’s privacy and freedom of expression. No-one is above the law and the European Court of Human Rights now has a chance to make that clear,” says Nick Williams, Amnesty International’s legal counsel.
The organisations filled the joint application to the Strasbourg court after 18 months of litigation between the NGOs and the government within the UK. This came to a head in December 2014 when the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, which has jurisdiction over the UK’s intelligence and security services, ruled that the government’s actions were compliant with human rights regulations.
Even though many of the hearings in IPT case were held in closed court, the legal proceedings that have taken place have revealed many previously secret arrangements between the US and the UK.
When the case goes to Europe, it is possible that Strasbourg could make a ruling on it without even having a hearing. However given the complexity of the case, it would be surprising if a ruling was made without a hearing taking place. The European Court of Human Rights tends to be far more open than the IPT, but if there is a compelling enough case to do so, sessions can be held in closed courts. A Privacy International spokesperson tells WIRED.co.uk that the organisations are not anticipating that this will be the case. For closed hearings to take place, the government would have to provide a very good reason them not to be held in the open.
While pursuing the case in Europe will undoubtedly be a costly endeavour for the NGOs, they are likely to have more luck than with the IPT, the general effectiveness of which has been widely called into question in the UK. The organisations hope that Europe will agree with their claims that the UK’s mass interception of communications is “neither necessary, nor proportionate”.
“The Tribunal believes that there are sufficient safeguards to protect us from industrial-scale abuse of our privacy. We disagree, and hope the European Court will finally make clear to our security services that they cannot operate in near complete secrecy,” says Liberty’s legal director, James Welch.
“While the IPT sided with GCHQ and against the rights of millions of people, Europe’s highest human rights court has a strong history of ensuring intelligence agencies are compliant with human rights law,” adds Privacy’s legal director, Carly Nyst. “We hope that the Court continues this tradition and GCHQ is finally held accountable for its unfettered spying on the world’s communications.”