A brief history of the ‘10 Human Rights Organisations v. the United Kingdom’ legal case
As we prepare for the European Court of Human Rights' judgment on the '10 Human Rights Organisations' case, here is a brief recap of its history. This landmark case has serious implications not only for the UK's mass surveillance regime, but also for the mass surveillance practices of the Council of Europe's other member states, and for such practices in other parts of the world.
The case began in 2013, following Edward Snowden’s revelations that the UK Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) was secretly intercepting, processing and storing data concerning millions of people’s private communications, even when those people were of clearly of no intelligence interest. Snowden also revealed that the Government was accessing communications and data collected by the USA’s National Security Agency and other countries’ intelligence agencies. All of this was taking place without public consent or awareness, with no basis in law, and with no proper safeguards.
The case was originally brought before the UK's Investigatory Powers Tribunal, which is a specialised court that hears human rights claims against the security and intelligence agencies. In a series of judgments, the Tribunal eventually found that the UK's mass interception and intelligence sharing practices were in principle compatible with the rights to privacy and freedom of expression enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights, but that the intelligence sharing practices had been unlawful prior to the proceedings because the rules governing them were secret. In March 2015, we filed an appeal before the European Court of Human Rights, challenging the Tribunal's findings that the UK's mass interception and intelligence sharing practices are lawful. More details and documents relevant to the case are available here.
The case challenges the UK government’s power to:
- intercept internet traffic that passes through the UK in bulk and to store the content of all these communications, as well as any related communications data (e.g. when an email was sent, who it was sent from and to, etc.); and
- obtain similar access to communications and data collected by the intelligence services of other countries, also on a massive scale.
Our contention is that:
- Bulk interception and intelligence sharing practices are not in accordance with the law and are neither necessary or proportionate.
- These practices are a violation by the UK of several aspects of the European Convention of Human Rights:
- Article 8 (right to privacy)
- Article 6 (right to a fair trial)
- Article 10 (freedom of expression)
- Article 14 (prohibition on discrimination)
Timeline of case
Following the Snowden disclosures, Privacy International filed a case in the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, challenging the interception by the UK of vast quantities of electronic data on fibre optic cables, passing through the UK, and access to data intercepted in bulk by US authorities.
Nine other NGOs (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 and Liberty), submitted similar complaints and the Tribunal subsequently joined the cases.
First Investigatory Powers Tribunal judgment that both UK bulk interception and UK access to US bulk surveillance were lawful in principle.
Second Investigatory Powers Tribunal judgment that the UK Government’s access to information gathered via US bulk surveillance was unlawful prior to the proceedings because the legal framework governing such access was secret.
10 Human Rights Organisations filed application to the European Court of Human Rights challenging the UK’s bulk interception of internet traffic and access to information gathered by the US through bulk surveillance.
10 Human Rights Organisations filed Additional Submissions to European Court of Human Rights on the Facts and Complaints.
Third Investigatory Powers Tribunal judgment that the UK Government had conducted unlawful surveillance of two of the NGOs – Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights and the Legal Resources Centre.
10 Human Rights Organisations filed submissions to European Court of Human Rights in light of third Investigatory Powers Tribunal judgment. The Investigatory Powers Tribunal issues a letter to the 10 Human Rights Organisations correcting its Third judgment, clarifying that the finding that the UK Government had conducted unlawful surveillance of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, in fact, related to Amnesty International.
European Court of Human Rights issued Statement of Facts and Questions to Parties.
UK Government filed its Observations.
10 Human Rights Organisations filed a Reply to the UK Government and a Factual Appendix.
UK Government filed further Observations.
Applicants filed Consolidated Observations for the Hearing (10 Human Rights Organisations application joined together with Big Brother Watch and Others v. the UK and Bureau of Investigative Journalism and Alice Ross v. the UK.)
European Court of Human Rights hearing.
European Court of Human Rights judgment.