THE UNITED KINGDOM has just been slammed by the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights for its years-long mass surveillance regime, which “violated basic human rights to privacy and free expression”.
The British spy agency GCHQ clearly abused its power by intercepting innocent people’s communications on a massive scale, the court found, confirming findings from an earlier hearing.
The surveillance would have continued for the foreseeable future had it not been exposed by the whistle blower Edward Snowden in 2013. Snowden fled to Hong Kong.
Top European court gives final judgement on a contentious issue: Picture by Guilliame Perigois/ Unsplash
The recent judgement, which got little coverage, is worth examining to help separate the truth from the general impression given in international discourse. Commentators take it as a given that the governments of the wealthy Western governments work hard to protect individual rights with democratic safeguards, while governments of developing Eastern nations, despite their economic struggles, have mastered futuristic levels of intrusion.
In fact, the evidence showed that British leaders maintained a level of intrusion that was considered world class, higher than that of the United States or any members of the “five eyes” cross-globe intelligence grouping.
Extraordinary level of access to communications of innocent people: picture by Mikhail Nilov/ Pexels
WATCHING THE INNOCENT
GCHQ boasted internally that it had “Mastered the Internet”. Another key principle was entitled “Global Telecoms Exploitation”.
The spy agency tapped more than 200 fibre-optic cables, producing a database which included recordings of phone calls, addresses and content of email messages, the full text of private entries on Facebook, the history of any internet user’s website visits, and so on. The system was “suspicion-less”, meaning it included the private communications of innocent people, not just targeted “enemies”.
These records of who people talked to and which websites they visited were passed on to the National Security Agency of the USA.
The UK authorities’ surveillance of its people’s personal communications was unwarranted and illegal, said the Strasbourg-based Grand Chamber, the highest judicial body of the Council of Europe. It clearly lacked independent safeguards as required by law.
Mass surveillance acceptable, court concludes: Picture by PXhere
A DEEPER DIVE
On the surface, the ruling by the Grand Chamber appears positive for the citizens of the UK and Europe, and for the world in as much as British and European law provides a model for the laws of the rest of the planet.
However, there are several points that have many people worried.
First, the court accepted in its judgement that one of the defence arguments was valid. The British authorities argued that mass surveillance of the population, including ordinary, suspicion-free people, must be recognized as a necessary thing in this period when terrorism threats were real. The court accepted this point, but said societies must follow their own guidelines on the matter.
A judge who dissented from this part of the ruling, Paulo Pinto de Albuquerque, said: “For good or ill, and I believe for ill more than for good, with the present judgment the Strasbourg Court has just opened the gates for an electronic ‘Big Brother’ in Europe.”
UK passed data to the United States: picture by Francesco Ungaro/ Pexels
Second, the court found that UK intelligence agencies had shared the hacked material with the United States, which was also running a secret mass surveillance operation on its own citizens, through the NSA. The majority of the 17 judges said that it was allowable for the intelligence to be shared in this way. But five judges dissented.
Third, the GCHQ interception regime examined by the court has already been placed by a new legal framework, the 2016 Investigatory Powers Act. While revising the guidelines for protections, privacy experts say it remains deeply problematic and have named it “the snooper’s charter”.
The case against the UK government was brought by a watchdog group called Liberty, whose lawyer Megan Goulding said: “Bulk surveillance powers allow the state to collect data that can reveal a huge amount about any one of us – from our political views to our sexual orientation.”
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A digression: While the West may have the biggest budgets and the highest level of technology, surveillance is now a global phenomenon. A survey published in January, 2021, indicated that two cities in India, Chennai and Hyderabad, had the highest density of surveillance cameras per square meter in the world. China’s Harbin and the UK’s London were in third and fourth place. [Link provided below.] However, dependable data on this subject is notoriously difficult to find due to different measurement systems.
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In conclusion, people everywhere need to recognise that surveillance is now the norm, not the exception, and it matters little where you live. Someone is watching you, and it is probably not who you think it is.
Some of the judges at the Grand Chamber said that mass surveillance would clearly remain a contentious issue in the UK and Europe, and quoted George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four: “There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment.”
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Main pic: This Is Engineering/ Pexels