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Human rights fundamentally threatened by mass surveillance

1st Feb 2015

The parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe, made up of 47 of the Council of Europe’s member states, have stated in a report that it is ‘deeply worried’ by the ‘existence of mass surveillance and large-scale intrusion practices hitherto unknown to the general public’ which governments, such as the UK and US, use to gather data on the country’s citizens. The report challenges the UK government’s plans to increase surveillance on communications technology in light of the recent Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris.

The report implies that British laws which give the monitoring agency GCHQ a large variety of power are in direct contradiction with the European convention on human rights. It states that mass surveillance is incompatible with Articles 8, 10, and 6, which are the rights to privacy, freedom of expression, and the rights to a fair trial respectively.

There is evidence suggesting that America and its allies have been collecting large amounts of data on innocent people for whom there is ‘no ground for suspicion.’ The report mentions the methods of Internet surveillance used to gather this data, which includes ‘using and even creating ‘back doors’ and other weaknesses in security standards … which could easily be exploited also by terrorists and cyber terrorists and other criminals.’  The report also states that the council is worried about ‘poorly scrutinised’ secret ‘laws […] courts […] and interpretations of such laws’ which are used to justify the existence and use of mass surveillance.

Although the council acknowledges the necessity of ‘targeted surveillance of suspected terrorists and organised criminals’, it suggests that mass surveillance actually reduces the effectiveness of monitoring for attacks, as it means resources are spread widely on everyone, rather than focusing on potentially threatening individuals.

The report calls for non-consensual data collection only to occur when court-ordered on the basis of reasonable suspicion, stronger parliamentary/judicial control of the intelligence services, an international ‘codex’ of rules governing the sharing of intelligence which national agencies could choose to join, and credible protection for whistle-blowers, such as Edward Snowden, who expose wrongdoing.

The recommendations made by the Council of Europe are not obligatory for governments, but are usually used for inspiration for rulings. The governments are free to accept or ignore the recommendations as seen fit, but if they reject them they must explain why.

The report states that European and American intelligence agencies work closely together, sending a letter to the German, British and US authorities asking if they collaborated with each other to avoid laws preventing domestic spying by getting a third party to do it for them. The Germans and British denied this, whilst the US didn’t respond. The report concluded that the British response was most likely true, considering the extensive British laws which already allow nearly unlimited surveillance.

The report states that the new Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act passed in July, allows the collection of personal data, as ‘there seems to be little need for circumvention anymore’.