Europe’s top rights body has said mass surveillance practices are a fundamental threat to human rights and violate the right to privacy enshrined in European law.
The parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe says in a report that it is “deeply concerned” by the “far-reaching, technologically advanced systems” used by the US and UK to collect, store and analyse the data of private citizens. It describes the scale of spying by the US National Security Agency, revealed by Edward Snowden, as “stunning”.
The report also suggests that British laws that give the monitoring agency GCHQ wide-ranging powers are incompatible with the European convention on human rights. It argues that British surveillance may be at odds with article 8, the right to privacy, as well as article 10, which guarantees freedom of expression, and article 6, the right to a fair trial.
“These rights are cornerstones of democracy. Their infringement without adequate judicial control jeopardises the rule of law,” it says.
There is compelling evidence that US intelligence agencies and their allies are hoovering up data “on a massive scale”, the report says. US-UK operations encompass “numerous persons against whom there is no ground for suspicion of any wrongdoing,” it adds.
The assembly is made up of delegates from 47 member states, including European Union and former Soviet countries. It is due to debate the report’s recommendations on Tuesday.
Though the recommendations are not binding on governments, the European court of human rights looks to the assembly for broad inspiration, and occasionally cites it in its rulings.
Several British surveillance cases are currently before the Strasbourg court. Amnesty International, the American Civil Liberties Union, Privacy International and Liberty all argue that GCHQ’s mass collection of data infringes European law. In December the UK’s investigatory powers tribunal (IPT) dismissed their complaint.
The 35-page assembly report, written by a Dutch MP, Pieter Omtzigt, begins with a quote from the Russian novelist Alexander Solzhenitysn: “Our freedom is built on what others do not know of our existences”. It says the knowledge that states do engage in mass surveillance has a “chilling effect” on the exercise of basic freedoms.