Mass surveillance and Snoopers' Charter


Posted on 25 May 2021

  • Liberty, Amnesty International, Privacy International and others win appeal against spying powers
  • Court confirms decades-long unlawfulness of powers used to intercept public’s communications
  • Landmark ruling means Liberty case against current Government powers proceeds

A coalition of human rights organisations led by Liberty, Privacy International and Amnesty International have won a landmark victory for privacy and freedom of expression.

In the final stage of a case started in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations about state spying, Europe’s highest human rights court said today, Tuesday 25 May, that UK’s bulk surveillance powers breached human rights laws.

Confirming sections of the lower Court’s previous judgment, the Court found:

  • For decades, “bulk” interception powers breached our rights to privacy and freedom of expression.
  • The bulk interception regime did not contain sufficient safeguards to protect against abuse. Before carrying out bulk surveillance, and when choosing search terms to find material, governments must now obtain independent authorisation.
  • There were insufficient safeguards to ensure confidential journalistic material was protected. Governments must also obtain independent authorisation before looking at such material.
  • Powers used to obtain our communications from private companies also breached our rights to privacy and freedom of expression.

The judgment is the latest stage of a long-running legal battle fought by Liberty, Amnesty International and Privacy International, along with seven other international human rights organisations, over the UK Government’s surveillance powers.

This case dealt with the historic UK surveillance regime, which was replaced in 2016 with the Investigatory Powers Act (IPA or Snoopers’ Charter). The Snoopers’ Charter includes and expands the historic surveillance powers at issue in today’s judgment. Liberty’s ongoing litigation over the lawfulness of the Snoopers’ Charter was put on hold by UK courts until the outcome of this appeal.

Today’s judgment means the case against the current surveillance powers that let the State spy on us can proceed. A hearing at the Court of Appeal is expected in the coming year.

Liberty lawyer Megan Goulding said:

“We all want to have control over our personal information, and to have a Government that respects our right to privacy and our freedom of expression. That’s what makes today’s victory, and the Court’s recognition of the dangers posed by these mass surveillance powers, so important.

“Bulk surveillance powers allow the State to collect data that can reveal a huge amount about any one of us – from our political views to our sexual orientation. These mass surveillance powers do not make us safer.

“Our right to privacy protects all of us. Today’s decision takes us another step closer to scrapping these dangerous, oppressive surveillance powers, and ensuring our rights are protected.”

Kate Logan, Senior Legal Counsel at Amnesty International, said:

“The unfettered harvesting and processing of millions of people’s private communications must end. Today’s ruling marks a significant step forward in condemning surveillance at the whim of the government.

“Significantly, the Court made clear that states cannot delegate the power to authorize surveillance to the executive branch of government, nor treat hundreds of millions of people’s private communications as a free-for-all commodity.”

Ilia Siatitsa, acting Legal Director at Privacy International said:

“Today’s ruling is an important win for privacy and freedom for everyone in the UK and beyond. Until the Snowden revelations, no one even knew about these mass surveillance regimes. It was all in the shadows, without any oversight or accountability. Since 2013, we were at least – and at last – able to scrutinise the intelligence agencies’ surveillance capabilities. Today the Court reiterated that intelligence agencies cannot act on their own, in secret and in the absence of authorisation and supervision by independent authorities. They must be accountable because their capabilities to access personal data about each and every one of us – even if we’re not suspected of any wrongdoing – pose serious risks in a democratic society. The judgment offers some pieces of the puzzle for stronger protections in the future, but it is not the end. We will continue to fight against abusive mass surveillance powers and for stronger protections for everyone across the globe.”

The other seven international human rights organisations acting alongside Liberty, Amnesty International and Privacy International are:

  • The ACLU
  • The Canadian Civil Liberties Association
  • The Irish Council for Civil Liberties
  • The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union
  • The Legal Resources Centre
  • Bytes for All
  • The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights

Ben Jaffey QC (Blackstone Chambers), David Heaton (Brick Court Chambers), Gayatri Sarathy (Blackstone Chambers) are instructed by Liberty, Privacy International, Amnesty International and the seven other organisations in this case, though other counsel have also acted at various stages of this case.

Contact the Liberty press office on 07973 831 128 or

Notes to Editors:

  • The case goes back to 2013, following Edward Snowden’s revelations that GCHQ was secretly intercepting, processing and storing millions of ordinary people’s private communications, and that GCHQ and the US National Security Agency (NSA) were sharing people’s data.
  • Liberty, Amnesty International and Privacy International’s case was joined with two other cases at the European Court of Human Rights, one brought by Big Brother Watch, Open Rights Group, English PEN and an individual, and another brought by Bureau of Investigative Journalism and an individual. All three cases challenged the UK’s historic bulk interception regime and the UK’s access to bulk data collected by foreign states.
  • In September 2018, Liberty, Amnesty International, Privacy International and seven other human rights groups, won their challenge to the UK’s historic bulk interception regime (the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA)) at the European Court of Human Rights.
  • In 2017, Liberty filed legal action over the legislation that had replaced RIPA in 2016, the Snoopers’ Charter, arguing that the bulk surveillance powers in the current legislation also violate the rights to privacy and free expression, and that there are insufficient safeguards to protect confidential journalistic and legally privileged material.
  • Liberty and the other groups appealed parts of the 2018 European Court judgment to the Grand Chamber in Strasbourg, to seek a firmer ruling that bulk interception powers are by their nature unlawful. Following an initial judgment in Liberty’s case against the Snoopers’ Charter, Liberty’s appeal was put on hold pending the outcome of this case.
  • Liberty and Privacy International have a separate case ongoing against MI5 and the Home Office, after evidence disclosed during Liberty’s Snoopers’ Charter case revealed long-term breaches of surveillance safeguards by MI5 in relation to how it was handling data collected through surveillance.

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