The case of Big Brother Watch and others v United Kingdom brought in 2013 has finally reached its conclusion. On the 13 September 2018, the European Court of Human Rights made its landmark judgement, finding that the UK’s mass surveillance regime has violated the European Convention on Human Rights.
The claims were brought by a coalition of a number of parties, including journalism groups, campaign groups including Big Brother Watch, and human rights groups including Amnesty International.
The case concerned the interception regime previously operated by GCHQ. The regime specifically focussed on digital surveillance including the bulk interception of communications, intelligence sharing, and obtaining communications data from service providers.
The British intelligence agencies breached people’s rights by collecting internet activity and phone records and letting public bodies access personal details. This data was collected with no suspicion of serious crime and without any permission or independent sign-off. The legislation, the Investigatory Powers Act 2016, has been under fire following the Liberty case earlier this year and continues to be criticised, even being referred to as the “Snoopers Charter” as it allows the government to “snoop” on British citizens without repercussions. Following the Liberty case earlier this year, UK government has been ordered to urgently change and rewrite the legislation with the deadline for this change being November 1st, 2018.
The Court did not say that the bulk data collection scheme in this case broke the law, but it was the lack of proper governance and oversight over how that information was collected which was of concern and breached the European Convention on Human Rights.
The ruling follows the whistleblowing revelations by Edward Snowden and the Court concluded that the British intelligence agencies methods had breached the Article 8 to a private and family life enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights by intercepting communications data in bulk, with “insufficient oversight” of when these powers could be used, and which communications were chosen for examination. The Strasbourg Court also focussed on the lack of sufficient surveillance safeguards in place to protect the privacy of British citizens.
The Court also ruled there had been a breach of Article 10, the right to freedom of expression, due to the “potential chilling effect that any perceived interference with the confidentiality of journalists’ communications and, in particular, their sources might have on the freedom of the press”.
It is the first major challenge to the legality of the UK’s bulk collection of communications and follows revelations that both the US and British governments were gathering communications on a huge scale.
Following the judgement, Edward Snowden tweeted “For five long years, governments have denied that global mass surveillance violates of your rights. And for five long years, we have chased them through the doors of every court. Today, we won. Don’t thank me: thank all of those who never stopped fighting.”
The ruling is a major victory for privacy groups and journalists, and though it may not have a direct impact on the Investigatory Powers Act, it does provide lawyers currently challenging the Act in the High Court with fresh ammunition.