News, Technology

Human rights groups tackle mass surveillance in the UK

Anna Wall

Amie Haven, Journalist

Privacy and freedom of expression are protected under the Human Rights Convention, and human rights groups are asking for their case against the UK government to be heard at the Grand Chamber.

Human rights groups Liberty, Amnesty International, and Privacy International are questioning the legality of the UK government’s intelligence sharing and mass surveillance.

In a landmark ruling in September 2018, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) found that the UK government’s historical mass surveillance violated the right to privacy and free expression. The European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) protects the right to privacy through Article 8, whilst the right to free expression is protected by Article 10.

However, the success of this ruling does not go far enough for the human rights groups – they are taking their case to the ECtHR’s highest court, the Grand Chamber.

The human rights groups want the Court to rule at the highest level to confirm that mass surveillance of people not suspected of a crime is unlawful. 

Megan Goulding, one of Liberty’s lawyers, argues that, “Our surveillance regime must be led by suspicion rather than subjecting us all to intrusive state monitoring which undermines our freedom.”

Liberty and the other groups also claim that the UK government’s intelligence sharing with foreign countries is unlawful, as by sharing the intelligence the UK government bypasses its own safeguards, increasing the privacy violations and further threatening free expression.

Whilst the ruling in 2018 found that the government’s historical use of mass surveillance was illegal, the human rights groups argue that the same powers exist in the Investigatory Powers Act 2016 (IPA). The IPA replaced the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA) and the groups are hoping that a new ruling will confirm that the current regime of mass surveillance is illegal.

Much of the concern revolves around the use of thematic warrants, which allow authorities to choose a theme and gain a warrant granting the surveillance of a group of people without identifying each individual person. 

The fear of terrorist attacks and the shock of 9/11 has prompted much of the mass surveillance across the UK and the US since 2001.

This is due to the hidden tactics of terrorists and their ability to utilise digital communications to plan attacks. Governments hope that by surveilling the masses they will detect these plots much sooner.

However, Liberty argue that by violating our right to privacy and free expression in the name of security the government are threatening the very foundations of democracy.

If the Grand Chamber agrees to hear the case and the IPA is ruled unlawful, the UK government may have to rethink its security strategy and begin to take privacy concerns more seriously.

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