Strasbourg, France—The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has accused British Intelligence with a breach of human rights over a mass surveillance operation.
The Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) is Great Britain’s premier intelligence organization. It is responsible for providing signals intelligence (SIGINT) to and securing the communications of the British government and Armed Forces (the National Security Agency (NSA) would be the U.S. equivalent).
The ECHR has found that the British spooks violated Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects individual and family privacy. It is important, however, to note that the ECHR isn’t accusing the GCHQ of eavesdropping, but of not ensuring the security of and access to the gathered data. Access was not limited to government employees.
According to the European judges, the data “could reveal a great deal about a person’s habit and contacts.”
Furthermore, the ECHR is accusing the GCHQ of breaking Article 10, freedom of expression, by not ensuring that proper safety measures were followed to ensure the confidentiality of the data.
“This landmark judgment confirming that the U.K.’s mass spying breached fundamental rights vindicates Mr Snowden’s courageous whistleblowing and the tireless work of Big Brother Watch and others in our pursuit for justice,” said Silkie Carlo, director of Big Brother Watch, a civil rights and privacy advocate group.
The ECHR only undertook the case following a campaign by civil rights activists and journalists. The impetus behind their campaign was Edward Snowden’s 2013 revelations. Among other intelligence, the former NSA contractor leaked the existence of several U.S. and UK SIGINT and intel-sharing operations.
British security and intelligence services are legally authorised to perform controversial intelligence-gathering operations under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA).
Interestingly, the European judges didn’t accuse GCHQ of sharing the obtained data with allied intelligence services.
“Under the guise of counter-terrorism, the UK has adopted the most authoritarian surveillance regime of any Western state, corroding democracy itself and the rights of the British public,” added Carlo.
“But the activity of intelligence agencies is completely exempt from all European rules. This is why there needs to be more activity of the European Commission and the Member States governments to pass at least minimum standards for the work and control of intelligence agencies. It is outrageous that since the revelations of Edward Snowden, no EU government has acted to end the massive infringement of human rights on privacy and data protection by their national security services,” had said Jan Philipp Albrecht, a member of the European Parliament.
Yet the UK isn’t the only European country that eavesdrops to ensure its security. An Amnesty International report found that intelligence gathering operations are on the rise in the Continent. Interestingly, the report found that Amnesty International was itself targeted by the GCHQ. Such activities, however, aren’t happening in a void: They are the direct outcome of the increased terrorist attacks in Europe.