10 Human Rights Organisations v. UK

Concerning Whether Alleged Surveillance Activities by MI5, MI6, and GCHQ Violated Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights

Background

10 Human Rights Organisations v. the United Kingdom is the consolidated result of challenges by ten human rights groups to surveillance activities of the British intelligence organizations. Shortly after the revelations about the NSA's surveillance program in June 2013, the British human rights group Liberty filed a complaint with the UK's Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT), a specialized court charged with evaluating potential misuse of covert technology by government agencies. Another human rights group, Privacy International, filed a similar complaint with the IPT in July 2013. The IPT ultimately consolidated these claims with those of ACLU, Amnesty International, Bytes For All, and several other domestic and international groups. The key issue before the Court was whether British surveillance of communications, either under its Tempora program or by receipt of communications from the U.S. government obtained in its Prism or Upstream programs, violated Articles 8 or 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

Following both public and closed-door hearings, the IPT issued its first judgment in December 2014 and held that both PRISM sharing and the Tempora program were consistent with Article 8 of the ECHR. However, as part of its first ruling, the IPT requested additional briefing on some of specific aspects of the government's programs. Based on that information, the IPT issued a second ruling in February 2015 and held that the rules governing one aspect of the GCHQ information sharing regime were not sufficiently transparent and had violated the ECHR. In the same ruling, the IPT found that the disclosures made by the government during the case were sufficient to satisfy the requirements of the ECHR. In a third judgment, the IPT found that one human rights organization was lawfully surveilled, but its intercepted communications were retained for longer than permitted by GCHQ procedures in violation of the ECHR. A second organization was also lawfully surveilled, but GCHQ’s selection procedures were not followed, violating the ECHR. Shortly thereafter, the IPT issued a letter amending its third judgment to change one of the names of the two human rights organizations.

The ten organizations petitioned for review by the European Court of Human Rights, complaining that the UK government’s potential receipt of their communications obtained via Prism or Upstream violates the ECHR Articles 8 and 10 and interception of their communications via Tempora violates the caselaw’s mandate of certain minimum safeguards. They also contend that the IPT proceedings violated their right to a fair hearing under Article 6 and that the UK statutory authorization for the Tempora program violates Article 14.

EPIC's Interest in 10 Human Rights Organisations v. UK

EPIC has a strong interest in protecting the human right to privacy, which includes a right to privacy in personal communications. The U.S. government's routine collection of the Internet communications of non-US persons infringes on those rights by allowing the U.S. agencies to conduct mass surveillance of communications without a warrant or without particularized suspicion. Such sweeping governmental surveillance is contrary to established international law principles on privacy and personal autonomy. EPIC has continually opposed the suspicionless collection of Internet communications, sought documentation on the legal authority for the program, petitioned the Supreme Court to halt disclosure of phone records to the NSA, and filing amicus briefs in support of other challengers. EPIC has also called for reforms to the FISA system that would enable greater transparency and oversight.

The NSA's PRISM and UPSTREAM Programs

In 2013, a series of reports unveiled the U.S. government’s PRISM and UPSTREAM surveillance programs, both carried out under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). Under its PRISM program, the government compels major Internet service providers, including Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, and Apple, to turn over communications. In contrast, under the UPSTREAM program, the government taps directly into the backbone of the internet - its cables and infrastructure - scanning and collecting communications passing by. The FISA Court revealed in a 2011 opinion the NSA collects over 250 million internet communications each year using these programs. The 2015 surveillance reform USA Freedom Act failed to restrict the government’s authority to collect communications under Section 702.

Legal Documents

The European Court of Human Rights

United Kingdom's Investigatory Powers Tribunal

United Kingdom's Intelligence and Security Committee

Relevant Publications

News Stories

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Communications Law and Policy

Communications Law and Policy
Jerry Kang and Alan Butler