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European Court of Human Rights issues landmark ruling on mass surveillance

The ICJ welcomes the ruling by the European Court of Human Rights in the case of B.B.W. and others v. the United Kingdom, setting out important guarantees against mass surveillance online.

On 25 May, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights issued its final ruling in this case in which the ICJ intervened. The case deals with the human rights implications of the system of intelligence mass surveillance of the United Kingdom, which was unveiled by the revelations of Edward Snowden.

“The judgment sets out clear guarantees to be respected in order to carry out bulk interception of communications”, said Massimo Frigo, Senior Legal Adviser for the ICJ Europe and Central Asia Programme, “it is a first important step towards ensuring that protection of human rights is as effective online as it is offline. All Member States of the Council of Europe must now ensure that their surveillance systems respect these minimal guarantees.”

In its judgment, the Court recognised the difference between surveillance of individual communications and bulk interception of communications with the use of metadata and introduces a set of procedural guarantees to be respected at initial, intermediary and final stages of bulk data surveillance.

The Court found that these guarantees also apply when a State receives intelligence based on bulk interception carried out by foreign States.

The judgment, however, does not fully address the implications for human rights of States’ participation in close transnational surveillance cooperation such as the system of the “Five Eyes” including the UK, USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

“These transnational surveillance systems entail a higher level of responsibility by States under international human rights law in light of the high risk of bypassing national remedies”, said Massimo Frigo, “We hope the Court will be able to address these important issues in the future to strengthen the protection of human rights online in Europe.”