In the first major challenge to the UK’s spying laws, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has found that GCHQ’s collection of data violated rights to privacy and freedom of expression. On 13 September, the judges found that:
The interception of communications data is as serious a breach of privacy as the interception of content
The UK’s regime for authorising bulk interception was incapable of keeping the ‘interference’ to what is ‘necessary in a democratic society’.
The decision will have a big impact on the future of UK spying laws. Lucy Claridge of Amnesty International said: “Today’s ruling […] sends a strong message to the UK government that its use of extensive surveillance powers is abusive and runs against the very principles that it claims to be defending.”
Privacy International’s tweet summarises the problems with spying laws and data collection:
— Privacy International (@privacyint) September 13, 2018
Edward Snowden vindicated
The legal challenge began in 2013, following Edward Snowden’s massive leak of documents regarding international spying programmes.
Snowden now lives in Russia. If he lived anywhere else in the world, “the US could apply economic pressure or send in a CIA team to kidnap him”. And the current US administration poses a particular threat to his freedom. National Security Adviser John Bolton claimed in 2013 that Snowden had “betrayed his country.”
According to UK privacy group Big Brother Watch, the European Court’s latest judgement “vindicates” Snowden. It is highly unlikely, however, to result in his right to return home to the United States.
Following the judgement, Snowden celebrated the massive victory, saying: “Don’t thank me: thank all of those who never stopped fighting.”
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. https://t.co/ARgbI5PKaa
— Edward Snowden (@Snowden) September 13, 2018
Many privacy organisations, human rights groups, and journalists also celebrated on Twitter.
Journalist and Amnesty International campaigner Stefan Simanowitz said it was a “victory” for people living in the UK:
The European Court of Human Rights has ruled UK mass surveillance laws violated human rights.
This is a major victory for freedom of people in the UK. It shows that there is – and should be – a limit to the extent that states can spy on their citizens. https://t.co/2tumBfs5ua pic.twitter.com/5zsCAWmlp1
— Stefan Simanowitz (@StefSimanowitz) September 13, 2018
Green MP and environmental campaigner Caroline Lucas said:
An incredibly important ruling – court says mass surveillance exposed by @Snowden is unlawful.
Intelligence agencies need powers to keep us safe, but spying on everyone cannot be justified in a free and democratic society.
Ministers have serious questions to answer. https://t.co/7V7QchUe29
— Caroline Lucas (@CarolineLucas) September 13, 2018
The National Union of Journalists also welcomed the judgement, claiming “a significant victory for the campaign to protect journalists’ sources and the right of journalists to adhere to the NUJ’s ethical code of conduct”.
What next for spying laws?
While today’s victory is a big one, it’s only the beginning of a long battle with spying laws. Since the case began in 2013, Liberty claims that the UK government “has replicated and expanded the powers we challenged here in the Investigatory Powers Act”.
Governments, moreover, continue to punish whistleblowers.
But spying laws have it the wrong way round. We should treat those who risk their safety to challenge the powerful not as criminals, but as national heroes.
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