Say surveillance breaches Right to Privacy under ECHR

In what is the first legal challenge from within the U.K. against the British intelligence gathering agency GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) for its secret surveillance of private internet data on a mass scale, three civil liberties groups and an internet activist have taken their case before European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

The groups, Big Brother Watch, Open Rights Group, English PEN, along with German Internet activist Constanze Kurz have come together on a platform called Privacy Not Prism.

They argue that the information gathered from documents released by whistleblower Edward Snowden points to the GCHQ, in collaboration with the United States’ intelligence arm, the National Security Agency, exercising untrammelled surveillance of private digital data of U.K. citizens — a breach of the Right to Privacy under Article 8 of the ECHR.

“Any interference with that right must be proportionate and in accordance with adequate and published legal standards. The law and practice in the U.K. fails to meet either requirement,” the group states.

Revelations from the Snowden documents started making headlines from June this year and have served to expose ‘industrial scale’ surveillance by NSA and GCHQ. All communication data can be surveyed and intercepted by these organisations.

At the centre of the expose are the two programmes: PRISM, which enables the NSA to gather data from U.S.-based internet corporations; and TEMPORA, a GCHQ programme that allows it to tap all electronic data passing into or out of the U.K. through under-sea fibre optic cables.

“There is no avenue within the U.K. to challenge the government’s action,” Jim Killock, executive director, Open Rights Group, told The Hindu when asked why a legal challenge was not mounted in the courts of this country.

He said that they wrote to the U.K. government in July stating their plans of challenging the legality of GCHQ’s surveillance sweep. The government’s response was that as the complaint was against the country’s intelligence services, they must first present their case before the Investigatory Powers Tribunal. As there have been legal precedents of the European Court directly accepting complaints of this nature because of the perceived ineffectiveness of the Tribunal, the group decided to go directly to the European Court. Even this, Mr. Kinnock argued, would take years before a judgment is made.

The U.K. government oversees collection of data through the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act. It is used by British intelligence to provide legal cover for TEMPORA.

Of concern to groups such as Privacy Not Prism is the lack of political action on the issue.

“Parties are blanking an issue that Parliament should be discussing,” Mr. Killock told The Hindu. “There is huge public concern about what is happening, but that is not translating into political action. And the media is trying to control and limit that debate.”

More In: World | International | News