The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that the UK Government’s mass surveillance programmes are unlawful, in the latest legal ruling to condemn the UK’s attempts to intercept its citizen’s personal communications and data.
The ruling was handed down in a case brought by multiple British human rights organisations including Amnesty International, Liberty, Privacy International and Big Brother Watch.
It concerned the UK Government’s previous data interception techniques, which were carried out under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA). But the ruling is also expected to have significant implications for the current regime which is carried out under the hugely controversial Investigatory Powers Act.
What the ECHR ruled
In the case, European judges examined three aspects of the UK surveillance regime, bulk interception of communications, intelligence sharing, and the obtaining of communications data from service providers, to consider if they were compatible with EU Human Rights legislation.
In particular, they were considering whether any aspects of the regime breached article 8, which guarantees a right to privacy, and article 10, which guarantees freedom of speech.
By a margin of five votes to two, the ECHR concluded that the UK’s bulk interception of communications was in breach of the right to privacy. The reason for this decision was that there were insufficient safeguards in place and the means by which the UK Government judged ‘related communications data’ was deemed inadequate.
They were particularly scathing about the UK Government’s interception warrants, which could be obtained under section 8(4) of RIPA. These warrants had no requirement to name the suspect or identify where they live.
It was not all good news for the privacy activists though. The ECHR did conclude that the UK Government’s processes to share collected information with overseas governments did not violate any aspect of European human rights law.
They also concluded that there was no available evidence to suggest the UK Government was abusing the powers it had.
A landmark ruling
Nevertheless, the ruling has been celebrated as a landmark one by the activists who brought the case, albeit with a cautionary note that there is more work to be done.
Silkie Carlo, the director of Big Brother Watch said, “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”
Meanwhile, Lucy Claridge of Amnesty International said the ruling “sends a strong message to the UK government that its use of extensive surveillance powers is abusive and runs against the very principles that it claims to be defending.”
Edward Snowden, whose revelations about mass surveillance set the ball rolling on this case, also welcomed the ruling. He simply said on Twitter that, “Today, we won!”.
But the UK Government has yet again dug its feet in on the issue.
They noted that the ruling was in relation to RIPA and not the Investigatory Powers Act and highlighted their so-called ‘double-lock’ warrant system in the new legislation which requires approval from both the Secretary of State and a Judge before powers of interception can be authorised.
Stay private and secure online now with a VPN
Legal challenges to the new regime are already in process and this latest judgement will only encourage those who are challenging the Investigatory Powers Act that they have a good chance of success.
But the process to force the UK Government to change track and accept the fact that its citizens deserve a right to privacy will not be a quick one.
In the meantime, it is down to individuals to take what steps they can to keep their online and communications data private and secure.
By encrypting their data, they are ensuring that UK Surveillance operatives cannot see what they are doing online. But they are also stopping their ISPs from being able to log their online activity too.
And a VPN will also hide their IP Address meaning that even the websites they visit cannot trace their online activity back to their actual internet connection.
In the wake of revelations about the extent of online surveillance, use of VPNs in the UK has skyrocketed.
This ECHR ruling is a step towards ensuring internet privacy in the UK once again. But there is still a long way to go. So, for now, if you want to ensure online security and privacy in the UK, a VPN remains an essential tool for you.