Mass surveillance case against UK government heads to Europe's highest court

Three human rights and privacy groups suing the British government against mass surveillance will have their case heard by the European Court of Human Rights.

RAF Menwith Hill in Yorkshire, UK, home to a surveillance base (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

A lawsuit aimed at challenging the UK government's mass surveillance programs has been filed with the highest human rights court in Europe.

The case, filed by Amnesty International, Liberty, and Privacy International on Wednesday, is now in the hands of the European Court of Human Rights after the groups said they "exhausted" all legal avenues in the UK.

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The suit aims to determine that the UK and US mass surveillance operations were in breach of Europe's human rights laws.

The joint application was submitted just weeks after the UK's Investigatory Powers Tribunal ruled that the UK intelligence agencies it oversees were not at the time breaching the laws. That decision was made because the UK government had by that point declassified how it was tapping the communications of millions of people, but noted that there was a prior lack of transparency.

However, the tribunal also found that the intelligence-sharing relationship between the UK and the US was unlawful prior to December 2014, because rules governing the UK's access to US mass electronic surveillance programs -- including the clandestine PRISM system -- were secret.

"It is ridiculous that the government has been allowed to rely on the existence of secret policies and procedures discussed with the Tribunal behind closed doors -- to demonstrate that it is being legally transparent," said Nick Williams, legal counsel for Amnesty International, in a statement Friday.

Although the case could go either way, the groups note that the Strasbourg court has a long history of pushing back on European member states' intelligence agencies, particularly when non-European countries are involved.

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