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UN slams U.K. surveillance law, calls for privacy reforms in Canada, France and Macedonia

2013 file photo of satellite dishes at the outpost of the GCHQ [Britain's spy agency] in Bude, Cornwall
2013 file photo of satellite dishes at the outpost of the GCHQ [Britain's spy agency] in Bude, Cornwall

REUTERS/Kieran Doherty

This statement was originally published on privacyinternational.org on 23 July 2015.

In yet another blow to the UK's surveillance proponents, the UN Human Rights Committee has criticised the British legal regime governing the interception of communications, observing that it allows for mass surveillance and lacks sufficient safeguards.

The latest in a series of calls for wholesale reform of surveillance laws and practices in Britain, and following on the footsteps of reports by the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation David Anderson QC and Royal United Services Institute, the Committee expressed serious concern at the confirmation by the Investigatory Powers Tribunal that Amnesty International has been placed under unlawful surveillance, and called on the UK to review the legal regime which permitted such practices.

Earlier this month in Geneva, the Human Rights Committee reviewed the UK's compliance with its international human rights obligations, and scrutinised Britain's track record on surveillance and other interferences with privacy. Privacy International made extensive submissions to the Committee, detailing the extent of communications undertaken by the British intelligence agencies as revealed by Edward Snowden. The Committee's Concluding Observations, issued today, demand that the UK brings its practices and policies in line with international law on the right to privacy.

Following on from the landmark decision of the High Court in David Davis MP and Tom Watson MP's judicial review of the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act (DRIPA), and echoing the sentiment of David Anderson's report, the Committee called on the UK to ensure judicial involvement in the authorisation of all surveillance measures, including access to communications data. The UK was also encouraged by the Committee to revise DRIPA to make sure access to data is only allowed in cases involving the most serious crimes.

The Committee's report echoes recommendations that it previously made to the United States in March 2014, particularly around the need to ensure that privacy rights are respected regardless of the nationality or location of the individuals whose communications are under surveillance.

Published less than two months before the UK government is expected to issue a draft Investigatory Powers Bill, designed to overhaul surveillance laws in the country, the Human Rights Committee's recommendation that the UK review the surveillance regime and "ensure that robust oversight systems over surveillance, interception and intelligence-sharing of personal communications activities are in place" are timely.

Tomaso Falchetta of Privacy International said:

"Today's pronouncement from the Human Rights Committee authoritatively recognises that the current British surveillance regime is not compliant with the right to privacy. The Committee's recommendations should form the basis of any reform of the UK surveillance laws that the government intends to pursue."

The Human Rights Committee, an independent body of human rights experts charged with reviewing countries' compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), also today expressed serious concerns about surveillance powers in Canada, France and Macedonia. Privacy International made submissions to the Committee on France and Macedonia.

With regards to Canada, the Committee noted that Bill C-51 contains amendments to the Canadian Security Intelligence Act which, if adopted, will confer a broad mandate and powers on the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) to act domestically and abroad, thus potentially resulting in mass surveillance and targeting activities that are protected under the ICCPR without sufficient and clear legal safeguards.

On France, the Committee expressed concerns that the Intelligence Law Bill (adopted by the French legislature and now currently before the French Constitutional Council) gives the French intelligence agencies excessive and vaguely defined powers of very intrusive surveillance, without adequate mechanisms of control and oversight.

With regards to Macedonia, the Committee noted the recent revelations of unlawful surveillance of thousands of Macedonian citizens, politicians and journalists. The Committee called on Macedonia to ensure that the persons who were unlawfully monitored are systematically informed thereof and have access to adequate remedies.

The text of all recommendations made today by the Human Rights Committee can be found here.

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