Published: Thu, September 13, 2018
People | By Leon Thompson

Edward Snowden surveillance powers ruled unlawful

Edward Snowden surveillance powers ruled unlawful

Europe's human rights court is about to publish what could be a landmark ruling on the legality of mass surveillance.

In a landmark case brought by charities including Amnesty and human rights group Big Brother Watch, the top court ruled that the "bulk interception regime" breached rights to privacy (Article 8).

It comes after U.S. whistleblower Edward Snowden disclosed British surveillance and intelligence-sharing practices.

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 Investigatory Powers Act 2016 replaced large parts of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) which was the subject of this challenge", she said.

The court did not say that carrying out bulk interception was unlawful in and of itself - but rather that the oversight of that apparatus was insufficient.

Furthermore, it found the United Kingdom "was not in accordance with the law" over it's obtaining of communications data from service providers.

They said Britain's activities - many of them run from GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters), a vast intelligence gathering centre in Cheltenham - could threaten the privacy of journalists, who may fear their contact lists or the websites they visit are being scrutinised by the government.

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"Furthermore, there were no real safeguards applicable to the selection of related communications data for examination, even though this data could reveal a great deal about a person's habits and contacts", the court statement said. The scope for unrestricted snooping "could be capable of painting an intimate picture of a person" through mapping of social networks and communication patterns, browsing and location tracking, and understanding who a person is interacting with, the court said.

In their ruling, judges declared there was insufficient monitoring of what information was being collected and that some safeguards were "inadequate".

The former system of data collection has previously been ruled unlawful by the UK's own Investigatory Powers Tribunal, which found that the spy agencies engaged in indiscriminate and illegal bulk surveillance for 15 years, up to October 2016.

Ruling in the case of Big Brother Watch and Others versus the United Kingdom, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, said the interception of journalistic material also violated the right to freedom of information.

In its ruling, the European Union court noted that "that safeguards were not sufficiently robust to provide adequate guarantees against abuse", and said it was particularly concerned that GCHQ can search and examine citizens" "related communications data' - such as location data and IP addresses - without restriction.

"An Investigatory Powers Commissioner has also been created to ensure robust independent oversight of how these powers are used".

Subsequently, Britain has changed their surveillance laws since the legal challenge began, the government claims that the new legislation contains more privacy protections.

The British government's counsel, James Eadie, said at that time the programmes were necessary in the fight against terrorism.

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