Top Human Rights Court Rules UK Mass Surveillance Program Violated Privacy Rights

May 25, 2021

This week, the grand chamber of the European Court of Human Rights issued a final judgement in Big Brother Watch v. UK confirming that the UK's intelligence agency violated the right to privacy by systematically intercepting online communications without first applying necessary safeguards. The agency's mass surveillance program was "not in accordance with [EU] law," which only allows governments to retain data in an effort to combat "serious crime" and requires a court or administrative body to sign off on data collection. The UK law at issue was not limited to serious crime, nor did it require independent authorization; these "fundamental deficiencies" impermissibly increased the "risk of the bulk interception power being abused." Nevertheless, the grand chamber found that the agency's decision to operate a bulk interception program did not itself violate human rights, and the agency's sharing of sensitive digital intelligence with foreign counterparts–including with the NSA–was legal. Several chamber judges believed this ruling did not go far enough to condemn the sharing of wrongfully collected communications with other countries, noting the chamber "missed an excellent opportunity to fully uphold the importance of private life … when faced with interference in the form of mass surveillance." EPIC has a strong interest in protecting the human right to privacy and has continuously opposed suspicionless mass collection of personal communications by domestic and foreign governments. EPIC participated in this case as a third-party intervenor and filed a brief describing U.S. intelligence authorities that allow the NSA to access the private communications of non-U.S. persons in violation of their rights. EPIC was also chosen by the Irish High Court to make amicus submissions in a case involving the international transfer of data from European servers to the U.S. in violation of E.U. law.

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