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Summary:

The activist coalition Privacy Not Prism has made some headway in its quest to prove that mass surveillance by UK intelligence agencies is illegal.

The British government may be doing its best to ignore the surveillance scandal, despite the relatively full official response it’s elicited in the U.S., but thanks to a coalition of privacy campaigners it seems the tactic won’t work for much longer.

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has asked the government to justify the legal grounding and proportionality of its intelligence services’ mass surveillance activities. The coalition that prompted this, Privacy Not Prism, takes in a variety of other UK activist groups, including Big Brother Watch, Open Rights Group, and English PEN, as well as German campaigner Constanze Kurz, a spokeswoman for the Chaos Computer Club.

Through the wall

Frustrated by the brick wall Privacy International hit in its case over at the UK Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT), a secret court that supposedly acts as an intelligence watchdog, Privacy Not Prism skipped the IPT last October and went straight to the ECHR. The coalition complained that its members had probably been subject to generic surveillance by UK spy agency GCHQ and/or by the NSA, and that there wasn’t a proper legal basis for this.

On Friday Privacy Not Prism announced that the ECHR had accepted the case and indeed decided to fast-track it under “Rule 41″, which gives urgent cases priority. The British government has until 2 May to explain itself to the ECHR, after which the court will decide what to do next.

The court, based in Strasbourg in France, wants to know the full legal basis for the UK’s intelligence services scraping and storing vast amounts of international data themselves, and acquiring such data from foreign intelligence partners. The government will need to explain why mass surveillance is “necessary in a democratic society.”

So far, the British government has claimed that the country’s surveillance activities are covered by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA), a piece of legislation that the campaigners argue does not allow blanket rather than targeted surveillance, and that is also supposed to restrict information-sharing with foreign agencies such as the NSA to specific cases that are clearly in the public interest. There’s also the matter of the politicians who voted the law through not knowing at the time the scale of the surveillance apparatus the UK had actually built.

Well hello there, Article 8

The campaigners say mass surveillance is disproportionate and illegal under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which gives everyone a right to privacy that cannot be interfered with by public authorities “except such as is in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”

“The government has so far failed to address the revelations about GCHQ’s activities with any sense of urgency,” English PEN director Jo Glanville said in a statement. “We’re delighted that the European Court of Human Rights has made the action a priority. This only ever happens in a minority of cases and is a measure of the significant international concern about the UK’s unchecked surveillance.”

Here’s the documentation that the ECHR sent to Privacy Not Prism:

Letter from European Court of Human Rights to Privacy Not Prism