Liberty and nine other organizations are appealing to the European Court of Human Rights against the Investigatory Powers Tribunal’s ruling that UK intelligence agencies’ mass surveillance activities are legal.
Liberty is challenging the tribunal’s December 2014 judgment that the Government Communications Headquarters's (GCHQ) Tempora program—which sees the agency intercept and process billions of private communications every day—complies with human rights law.
The appeal also challenges the tribunal’s finding that it is lawful for the UK’s intelligence services to access data gathered in bulk under the mass electronic surveillance programs PRISM and Upstream operated by the US National Security Agency (NSA).
The judgment followed a legal challenge brought against the security services by Liberty, Amnesty International, Privacy International and others in the wake of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations.
In a partial victory for Liberty and its fellow claimants, a second tribunal ruling in February 2015 found that the UK-US data sharing was unlawful prior to December 2014 because rules governing it had been kept secret. Limited details of secret policies governing the intelligence-sharing relationship were made public during legal proceedings.
This landmark judgment marked the first time the tribunal—the only UK court empowered to oversee GCHQ, MI5 and MI6—had found against the agencies in its 15-year history.
James Welch, legal director for Liberty:
"It is thanks only to Edward Snowden’s revelations, and the scant disclosures we and the other claimants have been able to prize from the government, that we know anything whatsoever about what the intelligence services are up to. The tribunal believes that there are sufficient safeguards to protect us from industrial-scale abuse of our privacy. We disagree, and hope the European Court will finally make clear to our security services that they cannot operate in near complete secrecy."
The use of and access to surveillance by UK public bodies is regulated by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA). Liberty believes this broad and confusing framework must be overhauled to ensure intrusions into personal privacy are all properly authorized and comply with the human rights principles of necessity and proportionality.
Carly Nyst, legal director of Privacy International:
"Mass surveillance is a violation of our fundamental rights. Intercepting millions of communications every day, and secretly receiving millions more from the NSA by the back door, is neither necessary nor proportionate. While the IPT sided with GCHQ and against the rights of millions of people, Europe’s highest human rights court has a strong history of ensuring intelligence agencies are compliant with human rights law. We hope that the court continues this tradition and GCHQ is finally held accountable for its unfettered spying on the world’s communications."
Nick Williams, Amnesty International’s legal counsel:
"The UK government’s surveillance practices have been allowed to continue unabated and on an unprecedented scale, with major consequences for people’s privacy and freedom of expression. No one is above the law and the European Court of Human Rights now has a chance to make that clear."
The parties in the case are the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International, Bytes for All, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, the Legal Resources Centre, Liberty and Privacy International.