“Bulk interception” by GCHQ (and NSA) violated human rights charter, European court rules

Ultramodern public building.

Enlarge / The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg, France, ruled that UK bulk data collection and mass surveillance regimes violated the European Charter of Human Rights. (credit: Violetta Kuhn/picture alliance via Getty Images)

rulings today, the European Court of Human Rights found that the mass surveillance scheme used by the GCHQ—the United Kingdom’s signals intelligence agency—violated the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), unlawfully intruding on the private and family life and freedom of expression of British and European citizens. And the case included consideration of intelligence collected by the US National Security Agency shared with GCHQ.

The Court found that sharing intelligence information gathered from bulk surveillance—as GCHQ does with the NSA and other members of the “Five Eyes” intelligence and security alliance—does not violate the human rights charter. But the judges did warn that using such intelligence sharing to bypass restrictions on surveillance of a member state’s own citizens would be a violation of the charter.

In the ruling, the judges found that there was insufficient oversight through the UK’s Investigatory Powers Tribunal (the UK equivalent of the US’ Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court) over the UK’s bulk interception, filtering, and search of communications by the GCHQ. The judges also found that there were insufficient safeguards put in place to govern access to communications data. While the case has no direct impact on US intelligence gathering, the case could have a ripple effect because of the close connections between US and UK intelligence and law enforcement organizations.

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