GCHQ’s mass surveillance of British citizens breached human rights, court rules

updated on 14 September 2018

Mass surveillance of the public by the government’s intelligence agency, GCHQ, was illegal under European law, the European Court of Human Rights has ruled in what rights and transparency campaigners have hailed as an important victory for privacy and freedom.

The five-year case disputed the legality of UK intelligence agencies’ mass interception of law-abiding people’s private communications with the help of service providers, and the sharing of this information with foreign governments. It was jointly brought to the courts by a group of human rights organisations, including Liberty and Amnesty International, as well as concerned journalists.

GCHQ’s policy of spying on UK citizens first came to light following US National Security Agency employee Edward Snowden’s unauthorised release of classified information gathered by his employer. Snowden’s whistleblowing revealed the existence of numerous secret global surveillance programmes, run by intelligence agencies with the cooperation of telecommunications companies and European governments, including the UK.

The government’s decision to allow the covert surveillance of its own citizens by spies has been shown to have taken place within a security framework that is more intrusive than those found in almost all other democratic countries.

As the Law Gazette reports, the chamber of the European Court of Human Rights found that GCHQ’s mass data interception programme violates the European Convention on Human Rights, specifically article eight (the right to privacy). The regime for gathering data from telecommunications and internet providers was also found to breach article eight. However, intelligence sharing between different countries’ security agencies was found not to breach the convention.

In addition, the court found a breach of article 10 (the right to freedom of expression), as neither the interception program nor the method for obtaining data from service providers provided safeguards for confidential journalistic material.

The UK government may still choose to appeal the judgment and take the case to the highest level – the grand chamber of the European Court of Human Rights.

Megan Goulding, in-house lawyer for Liberty, commented: “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.

“Our government has built a surveillance regime more extreme than that of any other democratic nation, abandoning the very rights and freedoms terrorists want to attack. It can and must give us an effective, targeted system that protects our safety, data security and fundamental rights.”