UK Surveillance Regime Violated Human Rights

On September 13, after a five-year legal battle, the European Court of Human Rights said that the UK government’s surveillance regime—which includes the country’s mass surveillance programs, methods, laws, and judges—violated the human rights to privacy and to freedom of expression. The court’s opinion is the culmination of lawsuits filed by multiple privacy rights organizations, journalists, and activists who argued that the UK’s surveillance programs violated the privacy of millions.

The court’s decision is a step in the right direction, but it shouldn’t be the last. While the court rejected the UK’s spying programs, it left open the risk that a mass surveillance regime could comply with human rights law, and it did not say that mass surveillance itself was unlawful under the European Convention on Human Rights (a treaty that we discuss below).

But the court found that the real-world implementation of the UK’s surveillance—with secret hearings, vague legal safeguards, and broadening reach—did not meet international human rights standards. The court described a surveillance regime “incapable” of limiting its “interference” into individuals’ private lives when only “necessary in a democratic society.”

In particular, the court’s decision attempts to rein in the expanding use of mass surveillance. Originally reserved for allegedly protecting national security or preventing serious threats, use of these programs has trickled into routine criminal investigations with no national security element— a lowered threshold that the court zeroed in on to justify its rejection of the UK’s surveillance programs. The court also said the UK’s mass surveillance pipeline—from the moment data is automatically swept up and filtered to the moment when that data is viewed by government agents—lacked meaningful safeguard

By David Ruiz

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