STRASBOURG: Europe’s top rights court ruled Thursday that Britain’s programme of mass surveillance, revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden as part of his sensational leaks on US spying, violated its citizens’ basic rights.
Ruling on a case brought by a group of journalists and NGOs, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, said the surveillance was a violation of the right to privacy and freedom of information enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights.
The court noted that national governments enjoy “wide discretion” in deciding what type of surveillance is necessary to protect national security and that the mere existence of a programme “did not in and of itself violate the convention”
But it said the “interference” needed to be limited to what is “necessary in a democratic society”.
It ruled that the mass sweep for information by Britain’s GCHQ intelligence agency violated Article 8 of the convention relating to privacy because there was “insufficient oversight” of the programme.
The court said the way in which the GCHQ selected internet providers for intercepting data, then filtered the messages and selected which data to examine lacked oversight.
It also ruled that the regime covering how the spy agency obtained data from internet and phone companies was “not in accordance with the law”.
And in a further victory for the 16 complainants the court ruled that the programme provided “insufficient safeguards in respect of confidential journalistic material”, violating Article 10 on the convention dealing with freedom of expression and information.
But it dismissed claims that Britain further violated the privacy of those on whom it snooped by sharing intelligence with foreign governments.
“The regime for sharing intelligence with foreign governments did not violate either Article 8 or Article 10,” it said.
Liberty, a human rights group which was part of the case, hailed the ruling as a “major victory for the rights and 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,” Liberty’s lawyer Megan Goulding said in a statement.
A British government spokesperson said the government would “give careful consideration to the court’s findings” while noting that a new “double lock” oversight mechanism on spying had been enacted in 2016 – three years after the spying revelations first emerged.
Snowden, a former contractor with the National Security Agency of the United States, leaked thousands of classified documents to the press in 2013 which revealed the vast scope of surveillance of private data that was put in place after the 9/11 attacks.
The documents showed, among other things, that Britain spied on foreign politicians at G20 summit meetings in London in 2009 and collected huge quantities of global email messages, Facebook posts, internet histories and calls, which it shared with the NSA.
The judgement is not final, as it can be appealed to the grand chamber of the Strasbourg court.
Snowden, who fled to Russia, is wanted in the US for espionage.