Four European civil liberties groups have launched a case against GCHQ at the European Court of Human Rights, accusing the British intelligence-gathering agency of illegally intruding on the privacy of millions people across the continent.
The legal action concerns the alleged hacking of masses of online data, including emails and social media. The British organisations Big Brother Watch, English PEN and Open Rights Group, along with the German internet activism group Constanze Kurz, will argue this breached Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees the right to a private family life.
It follows revelations of a vast data surveillance programme operated by the US and Britain, disclosed in leaks by the former US National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. The unveiling of the secret schemes has strained ties between the US, the European Union and Russia, where Snowden has been granted asylum.
The free speech groups – operating under the umbrella title of Privacy Not Prism – will also argue that current laws protecting online privacy are outdated.
“Laws governing how internet data is accessed were written when barely anyone had broadband access and were intended to cover old-fashioned copper telephone lines,” Big Brother Watch said in a statement.
“Parliament did not envisage or intend those laws to permit scooping up details of every communication we send... so it’s absolutely right that GCHQ is held accountable in the courts.”
The legal papers were filed at the Strasbourg court on Monday on behalf of the four groups and “all internet users in the UK and EU”, the Privacy Not Prism campaign site said. The GCHQ press office refused to comment on the moves.
The GCHQ director, Iain Lobban, declined to attend a hearing at a European Parliament committee in Brussels into allegations that the agency hacked into the Belgian telecoms firm Belgacom, which counts the EU institutions among its clients.
The German news magazine Der Speigel reported last month that documents from Mr Snowden indicated GCHQ ran the hacking programme under the codename “Operation Socialist”.
Jon Cunliffe, the UK’s permanent representative to the EU, wrote a letter to the committee chairman saying Mr Lobban would be unable to attend because national security issues were the responsibility of member states and “fall outside the competences of the Union”.
Many MEPs reacted angrily to the absence of any British officials at the hearing. “It’s absolutely unacceptable that there is no representatives [from] the GCHQ and that the UK Government is answering in such an unacceptable manner,” Jan Albrecht of the European Greens said. Dirk Lybaert, the President of Belgacom, told the committee said the company “could not speculate on the identification of the attacker”, and said that was up to the Belgian authorities.