Big Brother Watch and Others v UK at the European Court of Human Rights

After 4 years, our case against UK Government surveillance is getting a hearing in the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights.

In 2013, Edward Snowden revealed that the UK intelligence agency GCHQ was running a mass surveillance and bulk communications interception programme known as TEMPORA.  UK intelligence agencies were also receiving data from two other surveillance and bulk interception programmes, PRISM and UPSTREAM, run by the US National Security Agency (NSA).

Following these revelations, Big Brother Watch, English PEN, Open Rights Group and Dr Constanze Kurz made an application to the European Court of Human Rights on the grounds that these surveillance programmes were a significant interference with UK citizens’ right to privacy under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. It is this case which is being heard in the Grand Chamber.

The case challenges the legality of the indiscriminate surveillance of UK citizens and the bulk collection of vast amounts of their personal information and communications by UK intelligence agencies (including GCHQ) under the legal regime set out in the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) 2000.

The UK surveillance regime under RIPA was untargeted, meaning that UK citizens’ private communications and information was collected at random without any element of suspicion or evidence of wrongdoing, there was no authorization required for the interception of the communications, and process of interception was effective indefinitely.

We are challenging the RIPA regime on the grounds that there was no sufficient legal basis for such indiscriminate bulk interception, no defined limits on the exercise of the power and no adequate oversight – therefore, it infringed UK citizens’ Article 8 right to a private life.

Specifically, our case questions:

  • whether the storage and searching of those intercepted communications is lawful;
  • whether the use of computer programs to search this data is an interference with people’s privacy;
  • whether greater controls are needed on the receipt of intercepted foreign intelligence so that it doesn’t circumvent UK safeguards; and
  • whether it is fair that there are different standards applied to UK and non-UK residents.

Our case, Big Brother Watch and Others v UK, will be heard alongside two other very similar cases, 10 Human Rights Organisations and Others v UK and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and Alice Ross v UK.

In 2014, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism also made an application to the ECtHR challenging the UK surveillance regime and its implications for investigative journalism. In 2015, a collective of NGOs called 10 Human Rights Organisations also lodged an application with the Court after they received a judgment concerning the UK surveillance regime from the Investigatory Powers Tribunal. The European Court of Human Rights joined all three cases together and, exceptionally, scheduled a hearing at the Grand Chamber on Tuesday 7th November.

We hope that a favourable judgment will finally force the Government to constrain its current wide-ranging surveillance regime under the Investigatory Powers Act 2016, requiring reasonable suspicion for interception of communications, implement greater judicial control, and introduce sufficient protections, such as notifying citizens that they have been put under surveillance.

For more information and to read further about the case, including our original case documents, please visit: https://www.privacynotprism.org.uk/