January 25, 2014
Back in December, we wrote about a legal action that a group of digital rights activists had brought against GCHQ, alleging that the UK’s mass online surveillance programs have breached the privacy of tens of millions of people across the UK and Europe. In an unexpected turn of events, the court involved — the European Court of Human Rights — has put the case in the fast lane:
The court has completed its preliminary examination of the case and has communicated it to the British government, asking it to justify how GCHQ’s practices and the current system of oversight comply with the right to privacy under Article 8 of the European Convention. The court has also given the case a rare ‘priority’ designation. The government now has until 2 May to respond, after which the case will move into the final stages before judgment.
Any hopes the UK government may have had that the case would amble slowly through the legal system until people had forgotten about it have now been dashed. Moreover, it has been put on the spot by the court, which has asked a very specific question about how the UK government thinks it can square mass surveillance with the EU right to privacy. It will be interesting to see how the UK responds.
Nor is this the only legal challenge to GCHQ’s activities. In the December post, we reported that Amnesty International was using the UK’s Investigatory Powers Tribunal to argue that spying on communications breaches the UK’s Human Rights Act. Now we learn it has been joined by two others groups — one from inside, the other from outside the UK:
Privacy International’s partner organisation, Bytes for All, has filed a complaint against the Government, decrying the human rights violations inherent in such extensive surveillance and demonstrating how the UK’s mass surveillance operations and its policies have a disproportionate impact on those who live outside the country.
Bytes for All, a Pakistan-based human rights organization, filed its complaint in the UK Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT), the same venue in which Privacy International lodged a similar complaint last July.
Privacy International’s post quoted above points out that, just like the US, the UK offers fewer safeguards when it comes to overseas surveillance:
While such mass surveillance, in and of itself, is violative of human rights, that infringement is compounded where foreigners’ phone calls, emails, or internet searches are intercepted as they currently receive even fewer legal protections than the communications of those who reside in the UK. In addition to violating Articles 8 and 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), which protect private communications, such disparate treatment is a violation of Article 14 that prohibits discrimination of all sorts, including based on nationality.
None of these legal challenges on its own represents a serious threat to the UK government, but together they ensure that GCHQ’s surveillance activities remain in the spotlight, and that the UK government is forced to justify its activities — just what it is trying to avoid.
This article was posted: Saturday, January 25, 2014 at 6:20 am