The European Court of Human Rights has found the United Kingdom’s bulk interception powers illegal. The court has ruled that bulk interception is legitimate but GCHQ, the eavesdropping agency of UK, has violated rights while collecting bulk data of people.
The bulk interception powers of GCHQ first came to light when NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed that the agency has been secretly collecting communications sent over the internet on an industrial scale. The agency is said to be capable of reassembling the communications, filter them and then analyze the data for anything useful to protect national security.
Edward Snowden revealed key operations, including Tempora, which is the bulk storage project of all internet traffic GCHQ could harvest. There is Karma Police, which attempt to catalogue the web habits of any user who could be found and Black Hole acts like a digital library of more than one trillion internet events. The agency could also obtain further data from its partners and force tech companies like Apple, Google and Facebook to share data about their users.
The case argued that such bulk collection of data violated the right to privacy and the European Court of Human Rights seems to be in agreement with the campaigners. The court, in its judgement, said that the system revealed by Snowden did not have any proper safeguards in place and it led to ‘untargeted’ collection of user data. It observed that the GCHQ could see personal information even if it has nothing to do with protecting national security.
“While there is no evidence to suggest that the intelligence services are abusing their powers – on the contrary, the [then British watchdog] observed that the selection procedure was carefully and conscientiously undertaken by analysts,” the judgement said. “Of greatest concern, however, is the absence of robust independent oversight of the selectors and search criteria used to filter intercepted communications.”
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The court also criticized the powers of agencies like GCHQ to ask internet companies like Google and Facebook to hand over “communications data”. “The content of an electronic communication might be encrypted and, even if it were decrypted, might not reveal anything of note about the sender or recipient,” the court said.
According to BBC, the UK parliament passed the Investigatory Powers Act in 2016 that massively overhauled the country’s surveillance law. A government spokesperson said it would give careful consideration to the judgement and added that new safeguards are already in place. The judgement vindicates Snowden’s whistle-blowing but also brings to the light the lack of safeguards with most surveillance activities.