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Rights Groups Take UK Government to Court Over 'Unfettered and Unprecedented' Spying

Organizations hope Brtish spy agency 'is finally held accountable for its unfettered spying on the world’s communications.'

The European Court of Human Rights, located in Strasbourg, France.  (Photo: Marcella/flickr/cc)

A group of human rights organizations has taken the UK government to Europe's top human rights court to challenge what they characterize as "unfettered" and "unprecedented" surveillance practices revealed by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

The ten organizations, which include Privacy International, the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International, Liberty, and Bytes for All, announced their latest legal action against the surveillance on Friday, charging that the PRISM, UPSTREAM, and TEMPORA programs violate rights as outlined in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The court application (pdf) states that the groups

are concerned with mass bulk interception, collection, inspection, distribution and retention of communications on a vast, unprecedented scale. The process involves hundreds of millions of communications and takes place without any judicial authorization.

The UK Government carries out such activity itself. It also receives the product of such activity carried out by the US Government.

"The UK government’s surveillance practices have been allowed to continue unabated and on an unprecedented scale, with major consequences for people’s privacy and freedom of expression," Nick Williams, Amnesty International’s Legal Counsel, said in a media statement. "No one is above the law and the European Court of Human Rights now has a chance to make that clear," he stated.

The groups' legal effort was prompted by a December ruling by the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT), a watchdog for UK intelligence agencies, which found that the UK's surveillance programs do not violate human rights.

In their application to the Strasbourg court, filed last week, the groups state that the IPT erred in its ruling, as the programs, in fact, violate their Convention-enshrined rights to privacy and freedom of expression, and that the IPT failed to offer the groups a fair hearing.

"It is ridiculous that the government has been allowed to rely on the existence of secret policies and procedures discussed with the Tribunal behind closed doors—to demonstrate that it is being legally transparent," Williams added.

With no further legal avenues within the UK, the groups were forced to go to the European Court of Human Rights—a forum that "has a strong history of ensuring intelligence agencies are compliant with human rights law," stated Carly Nyst, Legal Director of Privacy International. She added that the groups hope that the GCHQ, the NSA's British counterpart, "is finally held accountable for its unfettered spying on the world’s communications."

The group also acknowledge that it is only because of Snowden's actions that these surveillance programs have come to light.

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