Today, 10 human rights organisations including the Irish Council of Civil Liberties (ICCL) brought a court challenge against the lawfulness of the UK Government’s mass digital surveillance regime. They argued at the European Court of Human Rights that the UK government’s ability to access people’s private communications, without their knowledge or consent, is unlawful. The case is founded on Articles 8 (the right to privacy), Article 10 (the right to freedom of expression and information), and Article 14 (against discrimination) of the European Convention on Human Rights.
This is not the first time ICCL has challenged the UK’s surveillance systems. In 1999, ICCL, Liberty and British-Irish Rights Watch brought another challenge to the Strasbourg Court in relation to the UK Ministry of Defence’s system of surveillance. In its 2008 judgment, the Court found that the UK system was in breach of the right to respect for private and family life under Article 8.
Almost ten years later, the present case concerns the existence of digital surveillance programs that are now far more extensive and powerful. Edward Snowden revealed through released documents in 2013 that governments across the world are using modern technology to collect our private communications in bulk. The UK has intercepted and stored all communications entering and leaving the UK via fibre-optic cables.
Here in Ireland, fibre-optic cables are also alleged by Snowden released documents to have been intercepted. The Snowden documents show specifically how the framework of cables connecting Ireland to digital information beyond its borders are being tapped by the UK government.
Apart from everyday citizens, the UK government is also watching human rights organisations aligned with the ICCL, giving rise to grave concerns about the impact of surveillance on democratic freedoms. In particular, we now know that they’ve spied on the South African Legal Resources Centre, a rights group connected with the ICCL through the International Network of Civil Law Organisations (INCLO). INCLO is 13 independent national human rights organizations in the global North and South.
This level of interference in our private activities via digital surveillance is unprecedented. Through access to our digital data, governments can now easily see where we’re going, who we’re talking to, and what interests we have. All without our knowledge or consent. The ICCL stands against these encroachments on our fundamental right to privacy.
Several INCLO members have also joined Tuesday’s court challenge against the UK’s international surveillance regime, including the Legal Resource Centre, Liberty, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.
As Martha Spurrier, Liberty’s Director has written of the mass surveillance: ‘No democratic state has ever deployed it against its citizens and human rights advocates and remained a rights-respecting democracy’.
The Snowden files have shown the world the power and potential threat that modern mass surveillance poses to our privacy and to democratic freedoms. We at the ICCL and our international human rights colleagues understand that it is necessary to work together to safeguard privacy rights on a global scale. We will continue to fight, at the European Courts and elsewhere, against the erosion of our hard earned democratic rights via government programs of mass digital surveillance.
Elizabeth Farries is the Information Rights Program Manager for both the Irish Council of Civil Liberties and the International Network of Civil Law Organizations. She is also a PhD Candidate researching digital privacy rights and cybermisogyny at the Trinity College Dublin.