No matter our background or beliefs, we all want control over our personal information, our private views and our sensitive data. That control is key to our autonomy and our liberty. But in 2013 Edward Snowden pulled back the curtain on how governments had used the excuse of the “war on terror” to erode that liberty.
On Tuesday, eight years after Snowden revealed the full extent to which western states were spying on their own citizens, and after successive legal challenges, Europe’s highest human rights court issued a judgment finding the historic and decades-long surveillance regime of GCHQ, MI5 and other state agents unlawful. This decision is both a vindication of the fight to end excessive state spying, and a step forward in a campaign that still has far to go.
Our right to privacy protects us, but in the name of keeping us safe the government was secretly intercepting, processing and storing millions of people’s private communications, even when those people were clearly of no intelligence interest. It was also accessing communications and data collected by the US’s National Security Agency and other countries’ intelligence agencies. All this was taking place without public consent or awareness and with no proper safeguards – and it continues today.
The first victory against these powers came in 2018, when the European court of human rights found these powers, authorised under a 2000 law, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, breached our rights to privacy and freedom of expression. On Tuesday, the court’s grand chamber confirmed this ruling, and went further in condemning the inadequacy of the safeguards that supposedly protected us from abuse of these powers.
The government is keen to dismiss the ruling by pointing out that the law that was challenged was replaced in 2016 by the Investigatory Powers Act. But this law, which became notorious as the “snooper’s charter”, simply legislated for – and expanded – the mass surveillance powers that were in place before, which is why here at Liberty our litigation against the current surveillance regime continues. As a result of the “snooper’s charter”, the government now has the power to hack into the electronic devices of its population en masse.
The information collected and stored under the “bulk” surveillance powers we continue to challenge can reveal the most intimate aspects of our private lives – from our political views to our sexual orientation, where we go, who we contact, which internet sites we use and what our opinions are. In condemning the lack of safeguards in Britain’s surveillance regime, the court was particularly critical of authority handed to the home secretary to dole out warrants for interception, in bulk, of the communications of swathes of the population. These laws do not keep us safe, they threaten our ability to live freely.
Successive courts have recognised that giving the state carte blanche to scoop up our personal information is a threat to our rights. It shouldn’t take Liberty, and the joint efforts of more than a dozen NGOs and campaigners from around the world, to fight years of legal battles to prove government wrongdoing before it is fixed. But we are facing a government that wants to expand police databases and use dangerous and discriminatory algorithms in law-enforcement decisions; that wants to expand the rollout of authoritarian facial recognition technology, despite a court finding its previous trial broke human rights laws; and wants to reduce our ability to challenge its actions and defend our rights in court in the first place.
This judgment is a victory for Snowden, for press outlets such as the Guardian that were attacked for publishing his revelations, and for the privacy and civil liberties campaigners who have fought so long for it. It is a victory for everyone who wants their privacy and personal autonomy to be respected. But it is also just the latest step forward. The decision lays the groundwork for the longer-term campaign – in the courts, as well as in parliament and in the streets – for an end to the authoritarian frameworks that still give agents of the state the power to scoop up our communications, access our personal details and erode our autonomy on a whim. It is time those in power acted to rein in state spying, coercion and control. It is time they recognised that these battles are not going away.