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Privacy advocates vs. GCHQ: Groups launch EU court case against spy agency

Published time: October 04, 2013 18:37
Britain's Government Communications Headquarters in Cheltenham (Reuters / Crown Copyright / Handout)

Britain's Government Communications Headquarters in Cheltenham (Reuters / Crown Copyright / Handout)

Three leading civil rights groups have filed a case against the UK spy agency, GCHQ, at the European Court of Human Rights over its surveillance methods, after being denied the chance to challenge its practices in an open court in Britain.

UK’s Big Brother Watch, English PEN and Open Rights Group has joined forces with well-known German legal activist Constanze Kurz, accusing the Government Communications Headquarters of violating the European Convention of Human Rights. Article 8 of the Convention guarantees European citizens the right to a private family life.

“The laws governing how internet data is accessed were written when barely anyone had broadband access and were intended to cover old fashioned copper telephone lines,” said a statement from Big Brother Watch.

“Parliament did not envisage or intend those laws to permit scooping up details of every communication we send, including content, so it’s absolutely right that GCHQ is held accountable in the courts for its actions.”

In line with the data revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden earlier this year, the group, which has united under the umbrella name Privacy not Prism, says that the UK government has the capacity to collect “more than 21 petabytes of data a day – equivalent to sending all the information in all the books in the British Library 192 times every 24 hours.”

Judges of the European Court of Human Rights attend an audience for the reassembly of the European court of Human rights (AFP Photo / Frederick Florin)

The information is collected by hacking into the undersea cables that connect Britain and the United States under a program called Tempora, and is freely shared with intelligence agencies in Washington (PRISM is the US counterpart of the program). The data includes all private communication conducted through the internet.

GCHQ insists that all of its activities are legal under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa), which was passed back in 2000, and has been cleared by the UK’s Intelligence and Security Committee.

The group had originally planned to challenge the legislation in the UK courts, but was told by the government in July that its only domestic option was a complaint filed with the Investigator Powers Tribunal. The tribunal hears sensitive cases in secret before coming to its decision, and does not have to provide a legal justification for its rulings. If a judgment of the tribunal is rejected, there is no recourse to appeal in a civil court.

One non-profit, Privacy International, has gone down that route, while Privacy not Prism hope to achieve a change to UK law through the highest court available to it. The plaintiffs hope that the case will result in “new laws that require surveillance to be proportionate; to be overseen by judicial authorities acting in public; that permit notification of persons affected by surveillance (even if after the fact); that are overseen by adequately resourced and empowered regulators.”

The European Court of Human Rights receives over 50,000 complaints annually, and it’s customary for cases to take a year to be heard, and a ruling returned.

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