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Court rules GCHQ’s mass data interception violated right to privacy

The UK spy agency GCHQ have breached the right to privacy. This comes as their methods for bulk interception of online communications, and their practice for collecting data was ruled unlawful by the grand chamber of the European court of human rights. 

The judges found the bulk interception regime violated the right of freedom and expression, and comprised inadequate protections for confidential journalistic records. 

The legal challenge to GCHQ’s interception of online communication began in 2013 by Big Brother Watch and other following Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing revelations regarding the interception, processing and storing of people’s private communications. The case was later replaced by the Investigatory Powers Act (IPA) in 2016. 

The ruling confirmed there were three “fundamental deficiencies” in the regime. These included the authorisation of bulk interception by the secretary of state of opposed to a body independent of the executive; search terms defining the communications not having been included in the application for a warrant; and that search terms linked to an individual had not been subject to prior internal consent.

The chamber concluded that the decision to perform a bulk interception regime did not of itself violate the European convention on human rights, and that the GCHQ’s regime for sharing sensitive digital intelligence with foreign governments was not illegal.

Its judgment claimed: “In order to minimise the risk of the bulk interception power being abused, the court considers that the process must be subject to ‘end-to-end safeguards’, meaning that, at the domestic level, an assessment should be made at each stage of the process”. 

Liberty’s lawyer Megan Goulding stated: “Bulk surveillance powers allow the state to collect data that can reveal a huge amount about any one of us – these mass surveillance powers do not make us safer”

Acting legal director at Privacy International Ilia Siatitsa said it was “an important win for privacy and freedom for everyone in the UK and beyond”, but added: “It is not the end.”

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