PRISM and TEMPORA: ECtHR proceedings issued against UK

Panopticon reported in July that Privacy International had commenced proceedings in the Investigatory Powers Tribunal against the UK intelligence and security agencies concerning PRISM and TEMPORA.

Big Brother Watch, the Open Rights Group, English PEN and Dr Constance Kurz announced yesterday that they have issued proceedings on the same issues – this time in the European Court of Human Rights. They have also published their pleadings and expert evidence (see the bottom of this page). To quote from their pleadings, they challenge on Article 8 ECHR grounds:

(a)    The soliciting or receipt and use by the UK intelligence services (“UKIS”), of data obtained from foreign intelligence partners, in particular the US National Security Agency’s “PRISM” and “UPSTREAM” programmes; and

(b)   The acquisition of worldwide and domestic communications by the Government Communications Head Quarters (“GCHQ”) for use by UKIS and other UK and foreign agencies through the interception, under global and rolling warrants, of electronic data transmitted on transatlantic fibre-optic cables (the “TEMPORA” programme).

The claim is put in summary terms as follows (again, quoting from the pleadings):

(1) In relation to receipt of foreign intercept material—i.e. the receipt, use, retention and dissemination of information received by UKIS from foreign intelligence partners which have themselves obtained it by communications intercept—the legal framework [including RIPA 2000] is inadequate to comply with the “in accordance with the law” requirement under Article 8(2).

(2) In relation to GCHQ’s own generic interception capability, the provisions contained in RIPA relating to external communications warrants allow UKIS to obtain general warrants permitting indiscriminate capturing of vast amounts of communication, effectively on an indefinite basis. The legal provisions which permit generic warrants in relation to such external communications are insufficiently protective to provide an ascertainable check against arbitrary use of secret and intrusive state power.

(3) Such legal provisions do not enable persons to foresee the general circumstances in which external communications may be the subject of surveillance (other than that any use may be made of communications if considered in the interests of national security—a concept of very broad scope in UK law); they do not require authorisations to be granted in relation to specific categories of persons or premises; they permit indiscriminate capture of communications data by reference only to its means of transmission; and they impose no significant restrictions on the access that foreign intelligence partners may have to such intercepted material. In short, there are no defined limits on the scope of discretion conferred on the competent authorities or the manner of its exercise. Moreover, there is no adequate degree of independent or democratic oversight. Indiscriminate and generic interception and the legal provisions under which it is carried out thereby breach the requirements that interferences with Article 8 must be “in accordance with the law” and must be proportionate.

To quote the briefing note, the applicants “are asking the Court to declare that the UK’s internet surveillance practices are disproportionate and that the legislation intended to protect the public’s rights to privacy in this context is not fit for purpose”.

In other words, this is challenge not only to specific actions, but to the UK’s regulatory regime for surveillance more broadly. The applicants also draw attention (pleadings, paragraph 121.7) to the fact that the Data Protection Act 1998 is powerless to protect personal data in this context, given the exemption for national security at s. 28 of that Act.

Robin Hopkins