UK mass surveillance challenge will go to Europe’s highest human rights court

13th February 2019 / United Kingdom
UK mass surveillance challenge will go to Europe’s highest human rights court

The Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights will hear Big Brother Watch & others’ case against mass surveillance by the UK government.


In September 2018 the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruled that the UK’s mass interception programmes breached the European Convention on Human Rights. The landmark judgment in September marked the Court’s first ruling on UK mass surveillance programmes revealed by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Campaign groups Big Brother Watch, English PEN, Open Rights Group and the computer science expert Dr Constanze Kurz began the legal challenge in 2013 following Mr Snowden’s revelations of GCHQ mass spying.

However, the campaign groups claim that the judgment did not go far enough in clarifying the unlawful nature of state mass surveillance of electronic communications, which is now practised under the Investigatory Powers Act 2016. The referral to the Grand Chamber is expected to deliver a definitive judgment on the compatibility of mass communications surveillance with the European Convention on Human Rights.

Documents provided by Mr Snowden revealed that the UK intelligence agency GCHQ was conducting “population-scale” interception, capturing the communications of millions of innocent people. The mass spying programmes included TEMPORA, a bulk data store of all internet traffic; KARMA POLICE, a catalogue including “a web browsing profile for every visible user on the internet”; and Black Hole, a repository of over 1 trillion events including internet histories, email and instant messenger records, search engine queries and social media activity.

In 2016, the Government passed the Investigatory Powers Act which expanded mass surveillance powers under a new statutory footing.


Silkie Carlo, director of Big Brother Watch said:

“We are taking the challenge to the highest level to protect the rights of millions of citizens to be free from unwarranted state intrusion. Some of the worst abuses of state powers in recent years have been enabled by secret, suspicionless surveillance and it must come to an end. Our legal challenge is of critical public importance and now gives the Grand Chamber an opportunity to protect the future of the fundamental right to a private life.”

Jim Killock, Executive Director of Open Rights Group said:

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“The news that the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights will finally get to examine the UK surveillance state’s mechanisms should bring hope to us all. Now the Court has an opportunity to expose it for what it is: generalised, suspicionless surveillance of every citizen. Finally the Karma Police at GCHQ are being exposed to an appropriate level of scrutiny by an independent International Court.”


Antonia Byatt, director of English PEN said:

“Governments have a duty to protect the human right of freedom of expression, not threaten it. This is a once in a generation opportunity for the European Court of Human Rights to curtail state intrusion into free speech”.

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