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The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that two foreign nationals living outside the UK had their privacy violated by Britain’s spy agencies as part of a wider mass surveillance programme.
The court upheld the argument of the two plaintiffs that they “reasonably” believed that their communications had been intercepted by the UK’s GCHQ, one of the world’s most sophisticated eavesdropping agencies, as part of its bulk interception of data.
Joshua Wieder, a US national who lives in Florida and has worked with data and news organisations, and Claudio Guarnieri, an Italian national who now lives in Germany and has researched privacy and surveillance, took their case to Strasbourg after being refused the right to seek redress in Britain.
The men originally submitted their complaints to the UK’s Investigatory Powers Tribunal in 2016 alleging breaches to their privacy caused by the mass surveillance programme. But the IPT refused to consider the case, ruling that it did not have the jurisdiction to hear them because they were not UK residents.
The ECHR found there had been a violation of the men’s privacy based on a broader ruling by the court in 2021 against the UK’s historic practice of intercepting and collecting vast amounts of data.
The mass surveillance programme by the British and US intelligence services was exposed a decade ago by whistleblower Edward Snowden, who worked for the National Security Agency, the US equivalent of GCHQ.
Ilia Siatitsa, senior legal officer at Privacy International, a charity that campaigns for privacy rights, said Tuesday’s ruling showed that the ECHR held the UK accountable for digital spying even when activity occurred outside the UK’s borders.
“This judgment signifies a significant milestone for the safeguarding of privacy and the enjoyment of human rights in the digital era,” she said.
“States can no longer assume digital surveillance comes without consequences or that they can evade accountability by targeting people outside their borders,” she added.
The ECHR ruling noted that the two men had not lodged a claim for compensation but were simply seeking a public ruling on the case. The court awarded them €33,155 in costs and expenses.
The government said: “The UK has one of the most robust and transparent oversight regimes for the protection of personal data and privacy anywhere in the world, with significant safeguards against abuse.” It added that the regime governing electronic surveillance, brought in under the 2016 Investigatory Powers Act, set an “international benchmark for how the law can protect both privacy and security whilst continuing to respond to an evolving threat picture”.