GCHQ, the British government’s intelligence and security organisation, has breached human rights in its mass surveillance programme, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) said in a landmark ruling on Thursday (13 September).
The ECHR found that Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, the respect for one’s private and family life, was violated as the UK did not take out the necessary measures to ensure that only individuals relevant to the government’s security operation were watched.
The court also observed that of the data under surveillance, no safeguards were put in place to ensure the protection of confidential material that was obtained, breaching Article 10, freedom of expression. The judges found that the data retrieved by GCHQ’s surveillance program “could reveal a great deal about a person’s habit and contacts.”
The ruling is a rap on the knuckles for the UK’s data surveillance operation under powers afforded to British public bodies by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA).
The regulation has previously been shrouded in controversy, with accusations that it can be exploited for malign causes.
In 2008, RIPA was caught in the crosshairs after it prevailed that local council officials in the UK had been taking advantage of the provisions to spy on a family of three children and two parents, and in 2014, UK police forces came in for criticism after UK police forces used RIPA to acquire information about journalists’ sources.
However, the ECHR’s ruling stated that the UK’s was not found to have violated either Article 8 or Article 10 in sharing intelligence with foreign governments.
A coalition of civil liberties campaigners and journalists banded together to bring the application to the courts after former US National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden revealed the existence of surveillance and intelligence sharing programmes operated by the intelligence services of the United States and the United Kingdom.
Snowden is still exiled in Russia since leaking the classified information.
One complainant who led the campaign to hold the UK government to account was the civil liberties and privacy campaigning body, Big Brother Watch.
“This landmark judgment confirming that the UK’s mass spying breached fundamental rights vindicates Mr Snowden’s courageous whistleblowing and the tireless work of Big Brother Watch and others in our pursuit for justice,” Silkie Carlo, director of Big Brother Watch said.
“Under the guise of counter-terrorism, the UK has adopted the most authoritarian surveillance regime of any Western state, corroding democracy itself and the rights of the British public.”