A group of ten human rights groups has launched a massive legal challenge against mass online surveillance in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). It will be the first time that the ECHR, a court which has a strong track record of protecting online freedoms, has considered the matter.
The groups which have brought the case are from right around the globe. They are Privacy International, Liberty, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Amnesty International, Bytes for All, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, the Legal Resources Centre and.
The case has been brought specifically against the UK Government and the 115-page complaint which summarises the human rights groups case was released on Thursday. Of course, should the case be won the implications would be felt by the governments of all 28 EU states, and could affect bulk data collection habits much further afield.
The basis of the various arguments it raises is that the “blanket and indiscriminate” surveillance which the UK has undertaken, with the cooperation of the US authorities, is a violation of freedom of expression and privacy laws.
It follows a ruling earlier this year, which we covered at the time, by the UKs Investigatory Powers Tribunal. It will not only challenge the general legality of mass surveillance, but also the specific practice of the UK authorities of getting around EU privacy safeguards by accessing information, including emails, telephone records, and web browser data, which has been collected in the US by the National Security Agency (NSA).
Amidst the plethora of stories about online surveillance which have been reported since the Edward Snowden revelations in 2013, it has perhaps been a bit too easy to overlook the extent to which overseas Governments can be a threat to individual privacy as much as your own.
NSA Data Collection
The NSA has collected a vast amount of data on UK citizens legally under US law, via Executive Order 1233. The question is whether the UK intelligence agencies should be allowed to enjoy the “unfettered access” they currently enjoy to this data, which they could not legally collect themselves.
The UK government has claimed that this data should not be subject to the same safeguards, but in this case, the ten NGO will argue that “Just because another country is conducting the interception does not lessen its intrusion.”
The case will also address the issue of the collection of metadata, or communications data, which the UK Government has argued in the past should require fewer safeguards than contents data, because it only records details of the communications rather than the communication itself.
In their complaint, the ten human rights groups will argue that this data allows intelligence agencies to make precise and often accurate conclusions about people’s lives which constitute a breach of the European Convention on Human Rights.
There is little doubt that the UK Government will fight their corner, especially with the former Home Secretary Theresa May, who was a vocal supporter of such surveillance powers, now installed as Prime Minister.
It, therefore, seems likely to be a long case and has the potential to cause great embarrassment to the UK government, especially as it will be running alongside the negotiations for the UKs exit from the European Union.
The outcome seems unlikely to be completely clear cut one way or the other, but no doubt the ten human rights groups will be hoping it can set a precedent which can fundamentally alter the anti-privacy approach which the UK Government, and many of their fellow EU member states, have brought to their surveillance policies in recent years.