The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that the UK’s digital spying on individuals outside its territory is unlawful, marking a significant milestone in the protection of privacy and human rights in the digital era. The case highlighted the UK’s breach of privacy and freedom of expression rights through its bulk interception regime. 

The European Court of Human Rights ruled [14 SEP 2023] against the UK’s digital spying on individuals outside its borders. Researchers Mr. Weider and Mr. Guarnieri spearheaded the case, citing infringements on their privacy and freedom of expression. The UK acknowledged the unlawful nature of its historic bulk interception regime. The ruling emphasized that the violation of privacy rights occurs where the communication interception happens.

 

Dr. Ilia Siatitsa (privacyinternational.org) remarked that the ruling marks a pivotal moment in safeguarding privacy and human rights in the digital age. The judgment accentuates the accountability of states engaging in digital surveillance, even beyond their borders. It underscores the necessity for security and intelligence agencies to bear responsibility for their actions globally. The ruling leverages the expansive capabilities of technology, highlighting the unprecedented access it grants to individual data.

 

In 2016, seven applicants, including journalists and activists, lodged complaints against the UK at the European Court. The grievances stemmed from the Investigatory Powers Tribunal’s (IPT) refusal to address their concerns regarding personal communication interception. The IPT had asserted a lack of jurisdiction over non-UK residents, denying them an effective remedy. The complaints were part of a campaign initiated by Privacy International in 2015, encouraging people to seek IPT investigations into potential unlawful surveillance by UK intelligence agencies.

 

The European Court deferred the examination of these cases pending a decision on a related matter, which concluded in May 2021 affirming the UK’s violation of privacy and freedom of expression rights. Following this, the court reopened the seven cases in September 2021, categorizing them based on the residency status of the applicants. The IPT had previously declined to investigate Mr. Weider and Mr. Guarnieri’s complaints in 2016, citing their non-residential status in the UK, a stance now overruled by the European Court’s landmark judgment.

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