It’s been slow on this blog recently. Nothing posted in just over a week.
That’s because I’ve had a busy week at work. English PEN have joined the Open Rights Group, Big Brother Watch and Constanze Kurz to sue the British Government at the European Court of Human Rights, over its use of mass surveillance programmes such as Prism and Tempora. The application argues that these programmes are too wide in scope, go beyond anything provided by law, and have ineffective oversight.
Prism, you will recall, is the US spy project that secured access to the data stored by American telephone and internet companies – including tech giants Google and Apple. Tempora, meanwhile, is the British project to physically plug-in to the undersea fibre-optic cables in order to intercept billions of communications (since this involves actual bending of light, I would say that it is this programme that should actually be called Prism, but there we go).
Privacy is a human right guaranteed by Article 8 of the European Convention (ECHR). Free speech is also a human right, Article 10. As I wrote in an English PEN bulletin on Friday, Privacy is a crucial guarantor of free speech.
Activists cannot comfortably share information nor discuss advocacy if they believe the authorities are looking over their shoulder. How can you read and write freely if you suspect that someone, somewhere, is keeping a record of your thoughts?
A central allegation made by whistle-blowers is that the NSA and GCHQ have been sharing data gleaned from these programmes. Since the spies are given much more leeway to snoop on foreigners, the two agencies can avoid warrants and oversight by simply spying on each others citizens, and sharing the result! If this is happening then it is very wrong and shows that the legislation and oversight in this area is not up to scratch.
Our group has chosen to take go straight to Strasbourg because there is no effective remedy in the UK. Other civil liberties groups that tried to challenge the Government over its use of the Prism and Tempora programmes have been sent to the Investigatory Powers Tribunal. But that’s a body which investigates complaints in secret, so its no good as a forum for redress, or for calling the Government to account.
A dedicated website has been set up for the campaign. It puts the case in context, and gives an overview of the arguments. We have also posted the actual legal applications. We asked anyone who is incensed by our Government’s complicity in mass surveillance to donate to the legal fund. The campaign raised the £20,000 target in less than 48 hours – this is clearly an issue that the public feels strongly about.