US National Security Agency whistle-blower Edward Snowden. Picture: REUTERS
US National Security Agency whistle-blower Edward Snowden. Picture: REUTERS

Geneva — The European Court of Human Rights said that some UK surveillance programmes, including the bulk interception of communications exposed by whistle-blower Edward Snowden, violate rules that protect privacy and family life.

The seven judges at the Strasbourg-based court said in a 5-2 ruling that such interception violated article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which also deals with the privacy of communications. There was insufficient oversight of how information in the bulk scoop of data was intercepted and filtered, and the safeguards governing the selection of "related communications data" for examination were inadequate, the judges said in a statement published Thursday following their decision.

The landmark ruling addresses three applications filed between 2013 and 2015 by a group of 16 journalists, civil-liberty activists and privacy organisations after Snowden, a former US National Security Agency contractor, exposed the degree to which intelligence services in the US and UK were monitoring their own citizens’ communication.

Intelligence and surveillance in the UK is undertaken by the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ). It shares any findings with Britain’s home office, the body responsible for domestic security and policing. A spokesperson for the home office reached by telephone asked for specific written questions before she could comment on the decision.

The ruling "sends a strong message to the UK government that its use of extensive surveillance powers is abusive and runs against the very principles that it claims to be defending", Lucy Claridge, director of strategic litigation at Amnesty International, said in a statement.

She stressed that the court could have gone further, "to protect human rights defenders by finding that the UK government’s system of intelligence sharing with foreign governments is also a violation of the right to privacy".

The European court also said that the programme for obtaining communications data from service providers violates article 8, which governs privacy, as well as article 10 as it does not provide adequate safeguards for respecting confidential journalistic material.

The European court, however, specified that all bulk-interception programmes do not necessarily violate the Convention on Human Rights, but that the plans must follow certain criteria laid out in European case law.