U.K. Surveillance Violated Privacy Rights, Europe Court Says

(Bloomberg) -- The European Court of Human Rights said that some U.K. surveillance programs, including the bulk interception of communications exposed by whistleblower Edward Snowden, violate rules that protect privacy and family life.

The seven judges at the Strasbourg, France-based court said in a 5-2 ruling that such interceptions violated Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which also deals with the privacy of communications. There was insufficient oversight of how information in the bulk scoop of data was intercepted and filtered, and the safeguards governing the selection of “related communications data” for examination were inadequate, the judges said in a statement published Thursday following their decision.

The landmark ruling addresses three applications filed between 2013 and 2015 by a group of 16 journalists, civil-liberty activists and privacy organizations after Snowden, a former U.S. National Security Agency contractor, exposed the degree to which intelligence services in the U.S. and U.K. were monitoring their own citizens’ communication.

Intelligence and surveillance in the U.K. is undertaken by the Government Communications Headquarters, known as GCHQ. It shares findings with Britain’s Home Office, the body responsible for domestic security and policing.

The Home Office said in a statement that the Investigatory Powers Act 2016 replaced large parts of a law that was the subject of this legal challenge. The new law, the agency says, includes the introduction of a “double lock which requires warrants for the use of these powers to be authorized by a Secretary of State and approved by a judge.” The government said it will give “careful consideration to the court’s findings.”

Big Brother, one of the campaign groups that brought the 2013 case, said in a statement that “today’s judgment that indiscriminate spying revealed by Mr. Snowden breached fundamental rights protected by the ECHR is likely to provoke further questions as to the adequacy of the safeguards around similar mass spying powers” in the 2016 act.

Other privacy campaigners involved in the case also weighed in.

The ruling “sends a strong message to the U.K. government that its use of extensive surveillance powers is abusive and runs against the very principles that it claims to be defending,” Lucy Claridge, director of strategic litigation at Amnesty International, said in a statement.

She stressed that the court could have gone further “to protect human rights defenders by finding that the U.K. government’s system of intelligence sharing with foreign governments is also a violation of the right to privacy.”

The European Court said that the program for obtaining communications data from service providers violates Article 8, which governs privacy, as well as Article 10 as it doesn’t provide adequate safeguards for respecting confidential journalistic material.

The European court, however, specified that all bulk-interception programs don’t necessarily violate the Convention on Human Rights, but that the plans must follow certain criteria laid out in European case law.

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