A brief history of the ‘10 Human Rights Organisations v. the United Kingdom’ legal case

bulk interception world map

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

July 2013
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.


December 2014
First Investigatory Powers Tribunal judgment that both UK bulk interception and UK access to US bulk surveillance were lawful in principle.


February 2015
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.


March 2015
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.


April 2015
10 Human Rights Organisations filed Additional Submissions to European Court of Human Rights on the Facts and Complaints.


June 2015
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.

July 2015
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.

November 2015
European Court of Human Rights issued Statement of Facts and Questions to Parties.

April 2016
UK Government filed its Observations.

September 2016
10 Human Rights Organisations filed a Reply to the UK Government and a Factual Appendix.

December 2016
UK Government filed further Observations.

September 2017
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.)

November 2017
European Court of Human Rights hearing.

September 2018
European Court of Human Rights judgment.