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Big Brother isn’t Fiction!

One headline that caught my notice amongst the other detritus of the day’s news was the ruling handed down from The Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights which ruled that the UK’s mass interception programmes unlawfully breached citizens’ rights to privacy and free expression. This follows on from disclosures by NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden in 2013, and a number of campaign groups challenging the legality of state sponsored surveillance on a massive scale.


This wasn’t the first challenge to the legality of the UK Governments activities. In September 2018, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the UK’s mass interception programmes breached the European Convention on Human Rights as they lacked adequate safeguards. However, this judgment did not declare the mass surveillance program unlawful, which would have moved the case up to the Grand Chamber. Today’s judgment means that such surveillance in the UK and across Europe will require prior independent or judicial authorisation, checking for adequate “end to end safeguards”, from the initial collection of data to the selection of items for storage to protect fundamental civil rights.


Information provided by Snowden highlighted that the UK intelligence agency GCHQ was conducting “population-scale” interception, capturing the electronic traffic of almost the entire population of the UK. These mass spying programmes included (but not limited to):

  • TEMPORA, a mass data store of ALL internet traffic;
  • KARMA POLICE, a catalogue including a “web browsing profile for every visible user on the internet”;
  • Black Hole, a repository of over 1 trillion events including internet histories, email and instant messenger records, search engine queries and social media activity.

The UK Government admitted that the purpose of mass surveillance “is not to search for the communications of identified targets” but to gather mass data and decide “who should be a target” which goes against the grain of a (supposed) democratic society and “treats everyone as under suspicion”. Mass surveillance damages democracy under the cloak of defending it, by moving the emphasis from targeting a potential criminal via investigation and intelligence gathering who can then be identified to treating everyone as a potential suspect. This paranoic, secretive in nature approach lays the foundations of a police state.  


I think we all recognise that the world has changed dramatically over the past few years, with technology and its availability becoming the new highway for not just legal, legitimate interactions on a world-wide basis, but also for those with intentions beyond what constitutes our safety and the (normally democratic) aspirations to which we aim. But mass surveillance itself then becomes a weapon if those using it are not acting in the best interests of those they are supposed to be representing. It also leads to what amounts to an arms race, with those with the best surveillance dominating, and information being shared across countries with similar ideologies, for example, GCHQ continues to share technology platforms and raw data with the USA in some places in the face of existing regulations of data transfer.


Most people in Britain have a concept in their mind that their personal data is just that, personal, and under their control. Today’s ruling has illustrated that this is a misconception, our data, information, internet communications (including this one!) are being monitored harvested and possibly being used against us. This judgment reaffirms that the British government’s bulk surveillance practices have violated our right to privacy and our right to freedom of expression and now must take action to ensure our rights are protected.


These dangerous, oppressive mass surveillance programs do not make us safer; they make us more vulnerable. As digital footprints grow and technologies that enable mass interception of personal data develop, our laws and safeguards should continue to adapt at the same pace, all systems need to have safeguards and measures in order for acceptance.

And the reason for their existence MUST NOT be at the sacrifice of civil rights.

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