UK's surveillance practices breached human rights laws, top European court has ruled

Seventeen judges unanimously agreed the UK violated citizens' right to privacy and freedom of expression
Seventeen judges unanimously agreed the UK violated citizens' right to privacy and freedom of expression Copyright Matt Dunham/AP
Copyright Matt Dunham/AP
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The case upheld a 2018 ruling by the lower chamber of the European Court of Human Rights.


Europe's top human rights court has ruled that British mass surveillance and intelligence-gathering practices breached human rights laws, in a partial victory for civil rights groups that had challenged the practices exposed by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.

The Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights upheld a 2018 ruling by the court's lower chamber that found some aspects of British surveillance activities violated provisions in the European Convention on Human Rights aimed at safeguarding Europeans’ rights to privacy.

The court's 17 judges unanimously agreed that wasn’t enough independent scrutiny of processes used by British intelligence services to sift through billions of calls, emails, text messages and other data and digital communications intercepted in bulk, resulting in violations of the right to privacy and freedom of expression.

The court noted that while the U.K. had independent oversight and a judicial body set up to hear complaints from people whose communications had been intercepted, "those safeguards had not been enough to offset shortcomings in the regime," according to a press summary of the judgment.

A majority of the judges gave a thumbs-up, however, to British laws governing the sharing of intercepted electronic intelligence with foreign governments or intelligence agencies.

“Sufficient safeguards had been in place to protect against abuse and to ensure that U.K. authorities had not used requests for material from foreign intelligence partners" to get around U.K. laws, the court said.

Five judges dissented on that point.

Judge Pinto de Albuquerque wrote that the ruling didn't go far enough and “has just opened the gates for an electronic ‘Big Brother’ in Europe."

Silkie Carlo, director of Big Brother Watch, a British privacy campaign group that led the legal challenge, said the ruling vindicated Snowden's revelations in 2013 detailing government surveillance programs.

“Mass surveillance damages democracies under the cloak of defending them, and we welcome the court’s acknowledgement of this," Carlo said, adding that the ruling also was a “missed opportunity for the court to prescribe clearer limitations and safeguards."

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