British intelligence agencies are violating citizens’ right to privacy by intercepting and processing their private communications, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has heard.
In a landmark hearing at the Strasbourg court yesterday, more than a dozen human rights organisations challenged the British government’s surveillance laws and its agencies’ surveillance practices.
“This case concerns the UK, but its significance is global,” said Amnesty International’s senior legal counsel Nick Williams. “It’s a watershed moment for people’s privacy and freedom of expression across the world.”
The case forms part of an ongoing challenge to the lawfulness of the GCHQ surveillance programmes unveiled by the NSA contractor-turned-whistleblower Edward Snowden in 2013.
The coalition of human rights groups is challenging a ruling by the Investigatory Powers Tribunal in 2014 that found the bulk interception of online data complies with the UK’s human rights obligations.
The parties argue that the UK’s surveillance laws affect not only British citizens, but all of those whose data passes through major internet cables in UK territory.
If the court rules in their favour, it will call into question the lawfulness of the Investigatory Powers Act that passed into UK law last year and provided a legal basis for large-scale hacking and the indiscriminate interception of communications.
Scarlet Kim, Privacy International’s legal officer, said the UK’s surveillance practices were incompatible with open and democratic societies: “We call on the European Court of Human Rights to reject them by finding bulk surveillance incompatible with the rights to privacy and freedom of expression enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights.”
The ECHR is yet to announce a deadline for the judgement.