Ministers have been ordered to justify GCHQ’s mass surveillance programmes by judges at the European court of human rights who have fast-tracked a case brought by privacy and human rights campaigners.
The court in Strasbourg has told the government to provide submissions by the beginning of May about whether GCHQ’s spying activities could be a violation of the right to privacy under article 8 of the European convention.
It followed the Guardian’s revelations about GCHQ’s data-trawling techniques which were detailed in papers leaked by the whistleblower Edward Snowden. The groups claim that by collecting data on millions of people not under any suspicion GCHQ has infringed the privacy of British and European citizens.
In a series of questions, the court has asked British ministers to explain why they think Britain’s intelligence services have the right to solicit, receive, search, analyse, disseminate and store data intercepted by themselves, or by foreign spy agencies. The court says the UK needs to show this activity is “within the law” and “necessary in a democratic society”.
The case refers specifically to two surveillance programmes, PRISM and Tempora. Between them, they allow GCHQ and its US counterpart, the National Security Agency to harvest, store and analyse data from millions of phone calls, emails and search engine queries.
In the complaint to the court, the groups argued much of this activity is not underpinned by British law. They said there was no “effective, independent authorisation and oversight” of the programmes. The claim states: “The interception of external communications by GCHQ is an inherently disproportionate interference with the private lives of thousands, perhaps millions of people.”
Marking the case a priority, campaigners are hopeful the court will bring a ruling before the end of the year.