Wednesday, September 20, 2023
Courthouse News Service
Wednesday, September 20, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Britain must take up foreigners’ surveillance complaints, European rights court rules

In a win for privacy advocates, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Britain must scrutinize allegations of government surveillance even if they are brought by people living outside its borders.

(CN) — Europe's human rights court on Tuesday ordered Great Britain to investigate claims brought by people living outside its borders who say they have been illegally spied on by British intelligence services.

A special British tribunal that examines complaints about government surveillance was wrong to determine it lacks the power to investigate cases brought by people living outside the United Kingdom, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in a case stemming from the revelations about global surveillance programs exposed by whistleblower Edward Snowden.

It was in May 2016 that the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, a special court under Britain's Home Office, ruled it didn't have jurisdiction to look into claims brought by two information security and privacy experts — an American living in Florida and an Italian in Berlin — who believed they were targeted by American and British mass surveillance programs.

The two researchers, Joshua Wieder in Florida and Claudio Guarnieri in Berlin, claimed they were targeted illegally. Both researchers worked for news organizations investigating privacy and surveillance issues. Guarnieri worked closely with Der Spiegel, a German news magazine, and the Intercept, an American investigative news outlet.

After getting rebuffed by the British special tribunal, Wieder and Guarnieri took their case to the Strasbourg-based human rights court in November 2016.

Human rights groups hailed Tuesday's ruling against the U.K. as a big win for privacy in the digital era.

“Today’s ruling from the European Court of Human Rights emphatically underscores that security and intelligence agencies must be held responsible for the effects of their actions no matter where they occur,” said Ilia Siatitsa, a legal officer at Privacy International, a London-based advocacy group backing the plaintiffs.

Siatitsa said governments need limits because the “ever-expanding capabilities of technology have empowered states to spy far beyond their traditional borders, granting them unprecedented access to individuals' information and lives.”

The Home Office did not immediately reply to a request for comment. The British government previously acknowledged its bulk interception regime was unlawful.

Tuesday's ruling may force Britain, a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights, to examine the claims brought by Wieder and Guarnieri. More than 300 other people living outside Britain have similarly claimed they were victims of the bulk interception programs.

The human rights court also ordered Britain to pay the plaintiffs' lawyers' fees.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

Follow @
Categories / Civil Rights, International, Law, Technology

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.