UK surveillance safeguards inadequate, says rights court

European Court of Human Rights rules on bulk interception and service provider data

Safeguards for UK citizens whose communications are being intercepted by the intelligence and police services are inadequate, a European court has ruled.

The Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights has ruled that although intercepts, largely the work of the British communications centre GCHQ, are legitimate in pursuit of terrorism or crime, the state must provide adequate supervision of and protection for citizens in ordering the selection of internet platforms for interception and the filtering, search and selection of intercepted communications for examination.

In its decision on Big Brother Watch and Others v. the United Kingdom, the court, at the instigation of journalists and other rights organisations, looked at three different types of surveillance: the bulk interception of communications; intelligence sharing; and the obtaining of communications data from communications service providers.

Intelligence services

The applications were lodged after Edward Snowden, a former US National Security Agency (NSA) contractor, revealed the existence of surveillance and intelligence-sharing programmes operated by the intelligence services of the United States and the United Kingdom.

The court found no problem with the sharing of data with other states, but the bulk interception regime violated article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (the right to respect for private and family life).

And it found that both the bulk interception regime and the regime for obtaining communications data from communications service providers violated article 10 of the convention as there were insufficient safeguards in respect of confidential journalistic material.

UK intercept rules are now, however, due to be subject to new legislation, the Investigatory Powers Act 2016, which the court did not consider.