The Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights will hear Big Brother Watch and others’ case against mass surveillance by the UK Government. In September last year, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that the UK’s mass interception programmes breached the European Convention on Human Rights. The landmark judgement marked the ECHR’s first ruling on UK mass surveillance programmes revealed by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.
Campaign groups Big Brother Watch, English PEN, the Open Rights Group and the computer science expert Dr Constanze Kurz began the legal challenge in 2013 following Snowden’s revelations of GCHQ mass spying.
However, the campaign groups claim that the judgement did not go far enough in clarifying the unlawful nature of state mass surveillance of electronic communications, which is now practised under the Investigatory Powers Act 2016. The referral to the Grand Chamber is expected to deliver a definitive judgement on the compatibility of mass communications surveillance with the European Convention on Human Rights.
Documents provided by Snowden revealed that UK intelligence agency GCHQ was conducting “population-scale” interception, capturing the communications of millions of innocent people. The mass spying programmes included Tempora, a bulk data store of all Internet traffic, Karma Police (a catalogue including “a web browsing profile for every visible user on the Internet”) and Black Hole, a repository of over one trillion events including Internet histories, e-mail and instant messenger records, search engine queries and social media activity.
In 2016, the Government passed the Investigatory Powers Act which expanded mass surveillance powers under a new statutory footing.
Silkie Carlo, director of Big Brother Watch, said: “We are taking the challenge to the highest level to protect the rights of millions of citizens to be free from unwarranted state intrusion. Some of the worst abuses of state powers in recent years have been enabled by secret, ‘suspicionless’ surveillance and it must come to an end. Our legal challenge is of critical public importance and now gives the Grand Chamber an opportunity to protect the future of the fundamental right to a private life.”
Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group, added: “The news that the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights will finally be able to examine the UK surveillance state’s mechanisms should bring hope to us all. Now, the European Court has an opportunity to expose it for what it is: generalised and ‘suspicionless’ surveillance of every citizen. Finally, the Karma Police at GCHQ are being exposed to an appropriate level of scrutiny by an independent International Court.”
Antonia Byatt, director of English PEN, concluded: “Governments have a duty to protect the Human Right of freedom of expression, not threaten it. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the European Court of Human Rights to curtail state intrusion into free speech.”