Britain's mass web-spying faulted by European rights court

UK mass surveillance broke human rights convention European court rules

American whistleblower Edward Snowden is seen on a screen June 28 2016. Scanpix Denmark Mathias Loevgreen Bojesen /via REUTERS

The European Court of Human Rights ruled that some aspects of British surveillance regimes violated provisions in the European Convention on Human Rights that are meant to safeguard Europeans' rights to privacy. The court also found that the system for obtaining communications data from service providers breached human-rights laws, but concluded the way the United Kingdom shares digital intelligence with foreign governments is legal.

The court is not a European Union institution and is instead part of the Council of Europe, a 47-member state organisation based in Strasbourg, which Britain is not leaving after Brexit.

The verdict is not final and can be appealed.

'In today's Chamber judgment the European Court of Human Rights held, by five votes to two, that: the bulk interception regime violated Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (right to respect for private and family life/communications) as there was insufficient oversight both of the selection of Internet bearers for interception and the filtering, search and selection of intercepted communications for examination, and the safeguards governing the selection of "related communications data" for examination were inadequate, ' the Court explains in its announcement on the ruling.

"We believe that they can and they must provide us with a targeted surveillance regime rather than a bulk regime that has adequate safeguards to protect our rights - that's very possible for them to do", said Goulding.

"Of greatest concern, however, is the absence of robust independent oversight of the selectors and search criteria used to filter intercepted communications".

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They argued the "population scale" surveillance revealed by Snowden's leak infringed people's rights to privacy, which are protected by Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

It said: "The content of an electronic communication might be encrypted and, even if it were decrypted, might not reveal anything of note about the sender or recipient".

"In bulk, the degree of intrusion is magnified, since the patterns that will emerge could be capable of painting an intimate picture of a person through the mapping of social networks, location tracking, internet browsing tracking, mapping of communication patterns, and insight into who a person interacted with". The advocacy groups focused on the power granted by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA), which was replaced in 2016 by the Investigatory Powers Act in 2016, a bill that hasn't yet gone into effect.

But that argument doesn't convince critics of the Investigatory Powers Act - legislation which those opposed to it have previous labelled as "the most extreme surveillance law ever passed in a democracy". "The government will give careful consideration to the court's findings", said a Home Office spokesperson.

"This includes the introduction of a "double lock" which requires warrants for the use of these powers to be authorised by a Secretary of State and approved by a judge", the government said in a statement.

Commenting on the ECHR's ruling, Silkie Carlo, director of Big Brother Watch, said: "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. Holding the powerful to account is the most important duty of a free press", they said.

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