The UK government’s mass surveillance programme violated human rights and had “no real safeguards”, the European Court of Human Rights (EHCR) has said in a landmark ruling.
The Strasbourg court said British intelligence agencies’ interception regime violated the right to a private and family life, since there was “insufficient oversight” over which communications were chosen for examination.
Not enough protection was given to journalistic sources by the government’s mass information collection programme, violating the right to freedom of expression, it also said.
But the court ruled that sharing the information with foreign governments did not violate either the right to a private and family life, or to free speech.
The case, brought by a group of charities including human rights groups Big Brother Watch and Amnesty International, centred on complaints about powers given to security services under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (Ripa).
It is the first major challenge to the legality of the UK’s bulk collection of communications and follows revelations that both the US and British governments were gathering communications on a “population-level”.
Former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) whistleblower Edward Snowden is still living in exile in Russia after leaking the information.
Although the UK government replaced the contested Ripa powers with the Investigatory Powers Act (IPA) in November 2016, campaigners said the judgment would provoke questions about the spying capabilities granted by the more recent legislation.
A Government spokesperson said the IPA provided better privacy protections than Ripa, but it would give “careful consideration” to the European court’s findings.
Silkie Carlo, director of the Big Brother Watch, said: “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.
She continued: “Under the guise of counter-terrorism, the UK has adopted the most authoritarian surveillance regime of any Western state, corroding democracy itself and the rights of the British public.
“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.”
Megan Goulding, a lawyer for Liberty, said: “This is a major victory for the rights and freedom of people in the UK. It shows that there is – and should be – a limit to the extent that states can spy on their citizens.
“Police and intelligence agencies need covert surveillance powers to tackle the threats we face today – but the court has ruled that those threats do not justify spying on every citizen without adequate protections.”
In response to the finding that the surveillance practices violated the right to free speech, Antonia Byatt, director of writers’ association English PEN, said: “Excessive surveillance discourages whistle-blowing and discourages investigative journalism.
“The government must now take action to guarantee our freedom to write and to read freely online.”
Dan Carey of Deighton Pierce Glynn, a solicitor representing the applicants, said the ECHR had told the government it did not have “a free hand” when it came to spying on its citizens.
“In several key respects the UK’s laws and surveillance practices have failed,” he said. ”In particular, there needs to be much greater control over the search terms that the government is using to sift our communications.”
A government spokesperson said: “The Investigatory Powers Act 2016 replaced large parts of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) which was the subject of this challenge.
“This includes the introduction of a ‘double lock’ which requires warrants for the use of these powers to be authorised by a Secretary of State and approved by a judge.
“An Investigatory Powers Commissioner has also been created to ensure robust independent oversight of how these powers are used.
“The Government will give careful consideration to the Court’s findings.”
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