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GCHQ faces legal challenge in European court over online privacy


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Campaigners accuse British spy agency of breaching privacy of millions in UK and Europe via online


GCHQ's offices in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire. Photograph: GCHQ/British Ministry of Defence/EPA

The UK spy agency GCHQ is facing a legal challenge in the European courts over claims its mass online
surveillance programmes have breached the privacy of tens of millions of people across the UK and

Three campaign groups – Big Brother Watch, the Open Rights Group and English PEN – together with the
German internet activist Constanze Kurz have filed papers at the European court of human rights alleging
that the collection of vast amounts of data, including the content of emails and social media messages, by
UK spy agencies is illegal.

The move follows revelations by the US whistleblower Edward Snowden that GCHQ has the capacity to
collect more than 21 petabytes of data a day – equivalent to sending all the information in all the books in
the British Library 192 times every 24 hours.

Daniel Carey, solicitor at Deighton Pierce Glynn, which is taking the case, said: "We are asking the court to
declare that unrestrained surveillance of much of Europe's internet communications by the UK government,
and the outdated regulatory system that has permitted this, breach our rights to privacy."

Files leaked by Snowden show GCHQ and its American counterpart, the National Security Agency, have
developed capabilities to undertake industrial-scale surveillance of the web and mobile phone networks.

This is done by trawling the servers of internet companies and collecting raw data from the undersea cables
that carry web traffic. Two of the programmes, Prism and Tempora, can sweep up vast amounts of private
data, which is shared between the two countries.

The revelations have led to widespread concern in Europe and the US about the power of the UK and US
security services to gather online communications. Last week Lord King, the former Conservative defence
secretary, called for a review of the laws used to justify surveillance and interception techniques.

Nick Pickles, director of Big Brother Watch, one of the groups bringing the legal challenge, said the system
of oversight was no longer fit for purpose.

"The laws governing how internet data is accessed were written when barely anyone had broadband access
and were intended to cover old-fashioned copper telephone lines," he said. "Parliament did not envisage or
intend those laws to permit scooping up details of every communication we send, including content, so it's
absolutely right that GCHQ is held accountable in the courts for its actions."

The principal piece of legislation used by the UK government to oversee the collection of data is the
Regulationof Investigatory Powers Act(Ripa). It has been in force since 2000 and is used by British intelligence
to provide legal authority for the Tempora programme, which gives GCHQ the ability to tap into vast amounts
of data carried by undersea internet cables. Separately, the Prism programme set up to help the US monitor
traffic of potential suspects abroad was used by GCHQ to generate 197 intelligence reports in the past year.

Jim Killock, executive director of Open Rights Group, said the extent of the UK and US surveillance created
risks for everyone and placed "extreme degrees of power in the hands of secret agencies".

"This is made worse by the lack of democratic accountability and judicial oversight. People living across the
UK, Europe, the USA and beyond need the courts to protect their rights and start the process of re-
establishing public trust."

The legal challenge came as the Council of Europe passed a resolution calling for better protection for whistle-
blowers who reveal state wrongdoing.

A motion on "national security and access to information" debated on Wednesday said that while "legitimate,
well-defined national security interests" were valid grounds for withholding information held by public
authorities, access to information should be granted where "public interest in the information in question
outweighs the authorities' interest in keeping it secret" – including when such information "would make an
important contribution to an ongoing public debate".

The legal action will be funded through donations at Privacy Not Prism.


Edited by n0_risk!
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