European court rules against Britain over mass surveillance

The case against the UK was brought by a group of journalists and rights activists

The case against the UK was brought by a group of journalists and rights activists

The UK's mass interception programmes allowing untargeted surveillance of people's emails and internet use breaches individuals' rights to privacy, the European Court of Human Rights has ruled.

"We see the ruling today as a really devastating blow to the United Kingdom mass surveillance regime", Megan Goulding, lawyer at civil liberties and human rights advocacy group Liberty told ZDNet.

They centred on complaints about powers given to security services under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA) - which was later replaced with the Investigatory Powers Act (IPA) in November 2016.

GCHQ, short for Government Communication Headquarters, continues to publicly neither confirm not deny the existence of programs with these codenames.

"The same underlying problems still apply, and the IP Act has most of the same flaws - flaws found to breach fundamental rights", he told ZDNet.

The ruling cited a "lack of oversight of the entire selection process" and "the absence of any real safeguards".

But it said such programmes require sufficient oversight to keep the surveillance to what is "necessary in a democratic society".

On the second point, the court noted particular concern about the way in which the government could search and examine this related data - the who, when and where of a communication - "apparently without restriction".

Judges voted six to one the effort by its intelligence agency GCHQ for obtaining data from communications providers was "not in accordance with the law", and there were "insufficient safeguards in respect of confidential journalistic material".

Aspects of the policy, the court declared, breached two articles of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) - the right to private life (Article 8) and the right to free expression (Article 10).

The court had also been asked to consider whether there had been violations of other parts of the convention, but found that the arguments put forward for a number of these challenges were inadmissible.

Among the more than one dozen groups that took the case to Strasbourg were the London-based Big Brother Watch organisation, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and former Guardian reporter Alice Ross.

The former system of data collection has previously been ruled unlawful by the UK's own Investigatory Powers Tribunal, which found that the spy agencies engaged in indiscriminate and illegal bulk surveillance for 15 years, up to October 2016.

"We will push on with our High Court challenge against the Investigatory Powers Act and I'm sure we'll draw on the judgement of today to explain why it means that act is also unlawful", she added.

The court gave Britain, which is in the process of altering legislation on an issue publicly exposed by US whistleblower Edward Snowden, three months to decide whether to request an appeal hearing after Thursday's ruling.

The government has since proposed changes to the law that it says will bring it in line with the CJEU's decision - but campaigners are eyeing up fresh challenges.

In a statement, Big Brother Watch director Silkie Carlo called the decision a "landmark ruling", while warning of the dangers posed by the incoming IPA.

"This judgment is a vital step towards protecting millions of law-abiding citizens from unjustified intrusion".

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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