ON TUESDAY, CIVIL rights groups including the Irish Council of Civil Liberties (ICCL) and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism brought cases together challenging the lawfulness of the UK’s mass digital surveillance regime.
They argued at the European Court of Human Rights that the government is accessing citizens’ and journalists’ private communication data unlawfully, without their knowledge and consent.
Mass surveillance means that the UK Government can track private communications, plans, locations, and records. They do it by looking at the digital communications data attached to phone calls, texts, chats, emails and other internet use. They do it without citizens’ knowledge or consent.
Judgement will have global implications
The eventual judgment on this case will have global implications. Snowden documents have shown that governments including the UK are not just surveilling their own citizens. They are also sharing that information with other countries. These practices threaten our democratic guarantees of freedom of expression and freedom of privacy.
Mass surveillance has a negative effect for freedom of the press, a principle the European Court of Human Rights has described as a central tenant of democratic governance.
Data showing the time, date, location, destination and frequency of a journalist’s telephone calls may, as the Bureau of Investigative Journalism notes, enable “a sophisticated picture to be developed of an individual or organisation’s network of contacts, sources, lines of enquiry as well as materials, subjects and persons of interest to them”.
For example, location data can link a journalist’s phone calls with a source during an important event in a manner which might enable law enforcement agencies to discover the person’s identity.
Ireland is not immune to threat
Ireland is not immune to this threat against our journalists. Media reports show that in January last year, the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission accessed the telephone records of certain journalists during an investigation in order to identify their sources.
Ireland’s former Chief Justice John Murray, in his formal review of the Irish law on data retention, has described how exposing journalist sources erodes public interests:
The protection of journalistic sources is one of the basic conditions for press freedom… without such protection, sources may be deterred from assisting the press in informing the public on matters of public interest.
Amnesty International has described the effects of journalist surveillance in in other parts of the world. For example, journalists in Belarus told Amnesty “how the widespread fear of surveillance makes it nearly impossible for them to carry out daily activities like sending emails, making phone calls or organising meetings”.
Mass surveillance practices
In addition to everyday citizens and journalists, the UK government is including human rights organisations associated with the ICCL in its mass surveillance practices. We now know that they have spied unlawfully on the South African Legal Resources Centre, a rights group connected with the ICCL through the International Network of Civil Law Organisations (INCLO).
INCLO is 13 independent national human rights organisations across the globe. It uses legal, grassroots, and public education to push for higher international standards of protection of informational privacy rights and limits on mass surveillance.
These INCLO members are also fighting internationally for privacy rights of citizens and journalists. See for example the story of Indian journalist Saikat Datta, who while exposing government surveillance of opposition politician, became a target of surveillance himself.
This story is not unusual. We at the ICCL and our international human rights colleagues understand that it is necessary to work together to safeguard privacy rights on a global scale. We will continue to fight, at the European Courts and elsewhere, against these encroachments on citizens and journalists’ privacy via government programmes of mass digital surveillance.
Elizabeth Farries is the Information Rights Project Manager with ICCL and INCLO.