A mass data surveillance programme that was run by the British government violated a European human rights convention, the European Court of Human Rights ruled on Thursday.
Britain’s bulk interception regime violated an article of the European Convention on Human Rights that protects the right to “respect for private and family life/communications,” the Strasbourg-based court said, following a five-year legal fight by British and international human rights groups.
The rights groups hailed the ruling as “a major victory for the rights and freedom of people in the UK.”
The court highlighted “insufficient oversight” of the interception and filtering of data and inadequate safeguards for the selection of intercepted communications for examination.
The ruling applies to government surveillance systems until 2016, when Britain’s Conservative government introduced a controversial new Investigatory Powers Act that is dubbed a “snoopers’ charter” by the rights groups challenging it.
Responding to the ECHR ruling, a government spokesperson said the new legislation had introduced a “double lock” requiring warrants for the use of the bulk surveillance powers to be approved by a government minister and a judge.
“The government will give careful consideration to the court’s findings,” the spokesperson said, adding that it had already planned to introduce “a serious crime threshold to the communications data regime in accordance with the requirements of European Law.”
Corey Stoughton, advocacy director for London-based group Liberty UK, said the rights groups would continue to challenge the new legislation.
“Many of the legal flaws slammed in today’s decision are baked into that law,” Stoughton tweeted.
Liberty UK, Amnesty International, Big Brother Watch, Privacy International and other groups welcomed the ECHR ruling in a joint statement but said it “does not go far enough in condemning bulk surveillance.”
“Today’s ruling represents a significant step forward in the protection of privacy and freedom of expression worldwide,” said Lucy Claridge, Amnesty’s strategic litigation director.
“It 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,” Claridge said.
“Three years ago, this same case forced the UK government to admit [spy agency] GCHQ had been spying on Amnesty – a clear sign that our work and the people we work alongside had been put at risk,” she said.
The rights groups said the ruling would still allow governments wide scope to decide when to use bulk interception and it “greenlights vast intelligence sharing with the US National Security Agency (NSA).”
The ECHR case was prompted by leaks from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.
Snowden revealed that GCHQ had intercepted and stored data from millions of people’s private communications, “even when those people were of clearly of no intelligence interest,” the groups said.