This is the first major legal challenge to the UK’s existing online surveillance regime since the revelations of Edward Snowden in 2013.
Ten civil liberties have challenged the UK Governments surveillance laws in a landmark online privacy court case. The case began today in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). This is the first major legal challenge to the UK’s existing online surveillance regime since the revelations of Edward Snowden in 2013.
Seven ECHR judges will hear three separate cases together. The first, which has been brought by a coalition of NGOs including Liberty, Amnesty International, and Privacy International along with groups from Pakistan and South Africa, has already been heard by the UK’s domestic Investigatory Powers Tribunal. The Tribunal ruled that the surveillance regime in the UK used to be unlawful under article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. This article guarantees the right to privacy.
The tribunal also ruled that the surveillance regime was now compliant. This ruling is now being challenged. This could prove interesting as the British Tribunal was held partially in private, whereas the ECHR will hear the case in the public domain.
The other two cases are being brought before the court by Big Brother Watch and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism amongst others. These two cases are based on the notion that state intervention of private online data is in breach of people’s right to freedom of expression and right to a fair trial.
In all three cases, it is being argued that the interception and collection of data on an international scale by the British Government and its agencies are illegal. Mass surveillance and bulk data retention programmes are also under scrutiny by the court. The main focus of the ECHR case will be on the surveillance schemes. These were first revealed by Snowden and include Tempora, which allowed the UK’s signals intelligence agency to intercept and store all internet data.
The courts will also consider Upstream which allowed the NSA to store any communications passing through the major online tech companies servers. Inevitably, the UK Government is planning a robust defense. But, it doesn’t appear that they have a lot to fall back on.
A spokesperson for the UK Government said the interception of a communication as it flows through a fiber optic cable does not entail a substantial invasion of privacy. One of the parties will argue that the only way to protect the UK from terrorists is to intercept communications. The group will also claim there is a difference between mass surveillance and the bulk interception of data. While the government has admitted to doing the latter, they deny that they do the former.
The case is likely to run for a number of days. If the ECHR rules against the UK Government, the case could have a big impact on the new Investigatory Powers Act. The law which was passed last year handed UK intelligence Agencies sweeping powers to retain and examine private communications. The impact of the case will be felt beyond the UK.
The age of state online surveillance has seen a significant spike in the last few years both in the UK and beyond. Many users will have a keen interest in the outcome of this case. If the Court does rule in the UK Government’s favor, more people are likely to turn to a VPN to provide them with the online security and privacy that their Governments and legal systems are unable to offer.