Three of Britain’s most prominent campaign groups have today announced the launch of a legal challenge against the actions of GCHQ, alleging it has illegally intruded on the privacy of millions of British and European citizens.
Big Brother Watch, the Open Rights Group and English PEN, together with German internet activist Constanze Kurz, have filed papers at the European Court of Human Rights bringing an action against the UK Government. They allege that by collecting vast amounts of data leaving or entering the UK, including the content of emails and social media messages, the UK’s spy agency has acted illegally.
When details recently emerged in the media about the Prism and Tempora programmes, codenames for previously secret online surveillance operations, it was revealed 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.
The disclosures have raised serious parliamentary concerns both in Britain and at the EU level.
Deighton Pierce Glynn solicitors represent the applicants, instructing Helen Mountfield QC of Matrix Chambers and Tom Hickman and Ravi Mehta of Blackstone Chambers.
The legal action will be funded through donations at www.privacynotprism.org.uk
Nick Pickles, director of Big Brother Watch, said: “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. 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.”
Jim Killock, executive director of Open Rights Group, said: “Mass surveillance systems create risks for everyone, and place 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 reestablishing public trust.”
Jo Glanville, Director of English PEN, said: “Privacy is now an essential condition for freedom of expression. Following the revelations about the extent to which GCHQ and the NSA have been harvesting our personal data, no citizen in the UK can be confident that their communications are private. If this legal challenge is successful then I’m hopeful that we will secure effective protection of our rights.”
Constanze Kurz, spokeswoman of the CCC, said: “I want to know, as a European Citizen, whether the human rights convention protects me and others like me across Europe from mass surveillance. This is a cross-border issue, yet the British laws offer virtually no protection to persons outside the UK from surveillance by the UK and US Governments.”
Daniel Carey, solicitor at Deighton Pierce Glynn, who are representing the applicants, 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. This is not something the secret investigatory powers tribunal can do. Indeed, it is precisely the sort of case that we need the European Court of Human Rights for. We are asking for the case to be dealt with on a priority basis, so I am hopeful that it will be formally communicated to the UK Government within a period of weeks. After that, the timetable will be determined by the court.”
The groups initially sought to bring their case in the UK domestic courts and wrote to the UK Government on 3 July 2013 stating that a judicial review challenge would be brought. However, the Government said an action in the English Courts was barred and that the groups should complain to the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, the secretive body that hears complaints about the intelligence agencies and from which there is no appeal to the courts. However, proceedings before the tribunal would not permit the public examination of these important issues, nor are they capable of providing the remedy the applicants seek: a new legislative framework respectful of British and European citizens’ privacy rights.
The European Court has previously held that the IPT does not provide an effective remedy and that it will hear complaints directly. The applicants have therefore pursued their legal challenge in the European Court of Human Rights. It is believed that this is the first complaint to be made to an international court relating to the disclosures of the Prism and Tempora programmes.
Notes: Twitter hashtag: #privacynotprism
Nick Pickles, Big Brother Watch: +44 07505 448925 or 0207 3406030 / press(at)bigbrotherwatch.org.uk
Jo Glanville, English PEN: +44 0771 302 0971
Jim Killock, Open Rights Group: press(at)openrightsgroup.org / +44 07894498127 / +44 020 7096 1079
Daniel Carey of Deighton Pierce Glynn solicitors on +44 0117 317 8133 / 07815 089526 / dcarey(at)dpglaw.co.uk
Constanze Kurz, CCC: constanze(at)ccc.de