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European Policy, Government Surveillance

Government Mass Surveillance to Go on Trial in Europe

The Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT), with PEN American Center (PEN), today signaled their intention to intervene in a case before the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) that could have profound impact on the surveillance practices of governments around the world. The case, Big Brother Watch v. United Kingdom, has been brought by a coalition of UK advocacy groups and activists to challenge the UK’s surveillance programs, as revealed by Edward Snowden, claiming they violate the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

“This case puts in the legal crosshairs one of the most important human rights questions of our time: does international human rights law permit mass surveillance?” said Greg Nojeim, CDT Senior Counsel. “The Court’s decision could change the surveillance conversation globally, and force governments – especially those in Europe – to consider how their laws must change to reflect their human rights obligations,” Nojeim added.

In the US, the government has thwarted legal challenges brought by journalists, authors, human rights activists and lawyers because the parties can’t show they were part of the surveillance dragnet. The European Court of Human Rights imposes no such requirement. As a result, a court with binding legal authority should, for the first time, decide the human rights merits of mass surveillance.

“Dragnet surveillance creates a chilling effect on the free expression of authors, reporters, researchers, and others,” said Suzanne Nossel, Executive Director of PEN. “Writers fear that researching and writing about certain topics could trigger government scrutiny and expose their confidential sources to harm. This case gives us a chance to help insulate writers against the risks that mass surveillance poses to creativity and unfettered thought.”

The plaintiffs (“applicants” in ECtHR parlance), who include PEN American Center’s sister organization, English PEN, argue that UK government surveillance programs violate Article 8 of the ECHR – which guarantees the right to privacy – by monitoring communications, and by gathering communications information, without sufficient justification. They challenge both the UK’s “TEMPORA” surveillance program and the UK government’s receipt of information from two NSA surveillance programs, “PRISM” and “UPSTREAM.”

CDT and PEN are represented in this case by noted UK barristers Hugh Southey QC from Matrix chambers, leading Can Yeginsu and Anthony Jones from 4 New Square Chambers.

The application for intervention in Big Brother Watch v. United Kingdom that CDT and PEN have filed is available online as is this summary of the case. The UK government’s response to the application is due May 2 and a decision in the case may be rendered this year.


Center for Democracy & Technology:
Brian Wesolowski
Director of Communications
[email protected]

PEN American Center:
Katy Glenn Bass
Deputy Director, Free Expression Programs
[email protected]
212-334-1660 ext. 109