EU Court: British mass surveillance program violated human rights law

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The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled Thursday that British intelligence's mass surveillance of private communications online is illegal.

In a five to two vote, the ECHR ruled there is "insufficient oversight" and "inadequate safeguards" over the bulk interception by GCHQ, the government's communications agency, of its own citizens' records through its controversial "Tempora programme", first disclosed by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

The case - which joined together three separate challenges - considered three aspects of the UK's spying laws: the regime for bulk interception of communications (under section 8 (4) of RIPA); the system for collection communications data (under Chapter II of RIPA); and the intelligence sharing programme.

They wrote: "In view of the potential chilling effect that any perceived interference with the confidentiality of journalists' communications and, in particular, their sources might have on the freedom of the press, the Court found that the bulk interception regime was also in violation of article 10".

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By related communications, the court said it meant the collection of details like who calls who, from where and when - rather than the content of the communications. Of greatest concern, however, is the absence of robust independent oversight of the selectors and search criteria used to filter intercepted communications (para 346-347). The court said it is "satisfied" that British intelligence services take their human rights convention obligations seriously "and are not abusing their powers".

A spokeswoman said: "The Investigatory Powers Act 2016 replaced large parts of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, which was the subject of this challenge".

"In bulk, the degree of intrusion is magnified, since the patterns that will emerge could be capable of painting an intimate picture of a person through the mapping of social networks, location tracking, internet browsing tracking, mapping of communication patterns, and insight into who a person interacted with".

The court said individual countries "enjoy a wide margin of appreciation in choosing how best to achieve the legitimate aim of protecting national security" and that "the decision to operate a bulk interception regime in order to identify hitherto unknown threats to national security is one which continues to fall within states' margin of appreciation". The court also rejected any claims around GCHQ sharing the data with foreign intelligence agencies. The High Court, whose ruling applied to Part 4 of the Act, gave the government until 1 November to change the law.

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"So whilst we have had success in court this time, the Government has since introduced a new legal framework to do even more extensive surveillance so we still really need the public support because we really have our work cut out".

"Under the guise of counterterrorism, the United Kingdom has adopted the most authoritarian surveillance regime of any Western state, corroding democracy itself and the rights of the British public", Carlo said in a statement.

But that argument doesn't convince critics of the Investigatory Powers Act - legislation which those opposed to it have previous labelled as "the most extreme surveillance law ever passed in a democracy".

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