Regimes governing the use of some surveillance techniques deployed by Britain’s spy agencies breached human rights obligations, European judges have found.
The case centred on complaints about powers given to security services under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (Ripa), which has since been replaced.
In a judgment issued on Thursday, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) found violations relating to bulk interception and communications data regimes.
Bulk interception is used to collect communications, including their content, of individuals outside the UK to bolster foreign-focused intelligence and identify potential overseas threats.
Communications data covers information such as who sent a message or made a phone call, when and where this happened – but not the content.
The ECtHR found, by five votes to two, that the bulk interception regime violated Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which covers citizens’ rights to have their private life and communications respected.
A summary of the judgment said: “While the court was satisfied that the intelligence services of the United Kingdom take their Convention obligations seriously and are not abusing their powers, it found that there was inadequate independent oversight of the selection and search processes involved in the operation, in particular when it came to selecting the internet bearers for interception and choosing the selectors and search criteria used to filter and select intercepted communications for examination.”
The Strasbourg-based court found that the operation of a bulk interception regime did not in and of itself violate the Convention.
Its ruling said the regime covering acquisition of data from communications service providers breached Article 8 as it was not in accordance with the law.
The court also concluded that both the bulk interception and communications data regimes provided insufficient safeguards in relation to confidential journalistic material.
However, the judges found no violation in the regime for sharing intelligence with foreign governments.
Complaints relating to procedures for challenging surveillance measures and alleged discrimination were dismissed.
The ruling follows a protracted legal battle sparked by Edward Snowden’s revelations about surveillance techniques used by US and British security agencies in 2013.
Since then, the Government has introduced the landmark Investigatory Powers Act, which brought a range of tactics used to fight terrorism and serious crime under one legal umbrella.
It also introduced the “double lock” authorisation regime, meaning a judge is required to sign off warrants for the most intrusive powers.
The ruling covers the previous arrangements under Ripa, and the ECtHR acknowledged that the IP Act makes significant changes to the bulk interception and communications data regimes.
Big Brother Watch, which was among a number of organisations that lodged complaints, claimed it was a “landmark judgment”.
Its director Silkie Carlo said: “Under the guise of counter-terrorism, the UK has adopted the most authoritarian surveillance regime of any Western state, corroding democracy itself and the rights of the British public.”
The Government said it would give “careful consideration” to the court’s findings.
A spokeswoman said: “The Investigatory Powers Act 2016 replaced large parts of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, which was the subject of this challenge.
“This includes the introduction of a ‘double lock’ which requires warrants for the use of these powers to be authorised by a secretary of state and approved by a judge.
“An Investigatory Powers Commissioner has also been created to ensure robust independent oversight of how these powers are used.”