UK's surveillance regime challenged in landmark European court hearing

Judges grill government on nuances of spying laws

The UK's surveillance laws have been put under the spotlight today as the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) heard legal complaints against the government's spying powers.

The landmark hearing in Strasbourg is the first time the court has been asked to rule on the legality of the UK's surveillance laws.

It is part of an ongoing set of legal challenges against the government's mass surveillance activities launched after US whistleblower Edward Snowden's revelations in 2013.

Snowden revealed that UK spy agency GCHQ was, through its TEMPORA programme, secretly intercepting communications traffic via fibre optic undersea cables.

Campaign groups lined up to challenge the government over this, arguing bulk interception and intelligence sharing violated the rights to privacy, fair trial and freedom of expression set out in the European Convention on Human Rights.

Now, four years after Privacy International and nine other human rights organisations first lodged a claim against the government, the case has made its way to the European court for consideration.

During this time, the UK's own Investigatory Powers Tribunal – the secretive court supposed to keep the spies in check – has ruled that bulk surveillance was unlawful only before Snowden's leak because after that the data slurping was no longer secret.

That tribunal also found that the UK government had carried out unlawful surveillance on NGOs including Amnesty International.

The applicants in the case, which also includes the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, argue that, as well as being a violation of privacy, the interception of data could have a chilling effect on their abilities to carry out their work.

"Our organisations... work with whistleblowers, victims, lawyers, journalists and campaigners around the world, so confidentiality and protection of our sources is vital," said Martha Spurrier of Liberty.

"The UK Government's vast, cross-border mass surveillance regime... has made those protections meaningless."

The government, meanwhile, has consistently said that interception of communication is necessary for national security, and that it does not equate to a substantial invasion of privacy, unless the communication is chosen for examination by a human.

Today's challenge has been hailed as a "watershed moment" by campaigners, with Amnesty's Nick Williams telling The Register that it was unusual for the ECHR to hear oral evidence – it only holds about four oral sessions a month.

"It was a privilege to get that attention, and the opportunity to make the case, and I think we made it well," he said.

The hearing, which lasted about three hours, began with 45-minute opening presentations from both the government and the applicants, before the nine judges were able to pose a set of questions.

Most were directed at the government, with many aiming to clarify some of the more technical aspects to the case.

They included questions on exactly what safeguards and oversight mechanisms are in place, who controls the activation of interception, the ease with which warrants are granted for communication interception, and how information is selected for human analysis.

Both sides were then allowed to respond to the questions in a final statement, which saw the government's QC, James Eadie, argue that there were proper checks and balances in place, while the applicants claimed there wasn't a truly independent mechanism to keep the agencies in line.

Williams told The Reg that he was "very pleased" with the way the questions had gone, saying the government had "faltered" in the session.

"I think they were on the back foot by that stage and we were increasingly confident," he said. "Whether that translates into a positive result is a totally different matter, but we made the case well."

The judges will now consider both the written submissions made before the hearing and the evidence given in the session. It is expected that the judgement will be delivered some time in early 2018. ®

Similar topics

Other stories you might like

  • Assange can go to UK Supreme Court (again) to fend off US extradition bid

    Top Brit judges may consider whether an American prison is just too much

    Julian Assange has won a technical victory in his ongoing battle against extradition from the UK to the United States, buying him a few more months in the relative safety of Her Majesty's Prison Belmarsh.

    Today at London's High Court, the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales Lord Burnett approved a question on a technical point of law, having refused Assange immediate permission to appeal to the UK Supreme Court. The WikiLeaker's lawyers had asked for formal permission to pose this legal conundrum about Assange's likely treatment in US prisons to the Supreme Court:

    Continue reading
  • They see us Cinnamon Rolling, they're rating: GeckoLinux incorporates kernel 5.16 with familiar installation experience

    A nice, clean community distro that works well

    Most distros haven't got to 5.15 yet, but openSUSE's downstream project GeckoLinux boasts 5.16 of the Linux kernel and the latest Cinnamon desktop environment.

    Some of the big-name distros have lots of downstream projects. Debian has been around for decades so has umpteen, including Ubuntu, which has dozens of its own, including Linux Mint, which is arguably more popular a desktop than its parent. Some have only a few, such as Fedora. As far as we know, openSUSE has just the one – GeckoLinux.

    The SUSE-sponsored community distro has two main editions, the stable Leap, which has a slow-moving release cycle synched with the commercial SUSE Linux Enterprise; and Tumbleweed, its rolling-release distro, which gets substantial updates pretty much every day. GeckoLinux does its own editions of both: its remix of Leap is called "GeckoLinux Static", and its remix of Tumbleweed is called "GeckoLinux Rolling".

    Continue reading
  • Running Windows 10? Microsoft is preparing to fire up the update engines

    Winter Windows Is Coming

    It's coming. Microsoft is preparing to start shoveling the latest version of Windows 10 down the throats of refuseniks still clinging to older incarnations.

    The Windows Update team gave the heads-up through its Twitter orifice last week. Windows 10 2004 was already on its last gasp, have had support terminated in December. 20H2, on the other hand, should be good to go until May this year.

    Continue reading
  • Throw away your Ethernet cables* because MediaTek says Wi-Fi 7 will replace them

    *Don't do this

    MediaTek claims to have given the world's first live demo of Wi-Fi 7, and said that the upcoming wireless technology will be able to challenge wired Ethernet for high-bandwidth applications, once available.

    The fabless Taiwanese chip firm said it is currently showcasing two Wi-Fi 7 demos to key customers and industry collaborators, in order to demonstrate the technology's super-fast speeds and low latency transmission.

    Based on the IEEE 802.11be standard, the draft version of which was published last year, Wi-Fi 7 is expected to provide speeds several times faster than Wi-Fi 6 kit, offering connections of at least 30Gbps and possibly up to 40Gbps.

    Continue reading
  • Windows box won't boot? SystemRescue 9 may help

    An ISO image you can burn or drop onto a USB key

    The latest version of an old friend of the jobbing support bod has delivered a new kernel to help with fixing Microsoft's finest.

    It used to be called the System Rescue CD, but who uses CDs any more? Enter SystemRescue, an ISO image that you can burn, or just drop onto your Ventoy USB key, and which may help you to fix a borked Windows box. Or a borked Linux box, come to that.

    SystemRescue 9 includes Linux kernel 5.15 and a minimal Xfce 4.16 desktop (which isn't loaded by default). There is a modest selection of GUI tools: Firefox, VNC and RDP clients and servers, and various connectivity tools – SSH, FTP, IRC. There's also some security-related stuff such as Yubikey setup, KeePass, token management, and so on. The main course is a bunch of the usual Linux tools for partitioning, formatting, copying, and imaging disks. You can check SMART status, mount LVM volumes, rsync files, and other handy stuff.

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022