Irish and British human rights groups yesterday won their case against the British government for seven years of monitoring and storing details from personal and professional communications between the two islands.
The Irish Council for Civil Liberties, Liberty and British-Irish Rights Watch claimed private and sensitive contacts between their offices were illegally picked up by the surveillance and the information stored for as yet unknown purposes.
But the European Court of Human Rights, which found in their favour, also highlighted the fact the British government accepted that “in principle, any person who sent or received any form of telecommunication outside the British islands during the period could have had such a communications intercepted”.
The technology used by the Ministry of Defence to carry out the surveillance was built to intercept 10,000 simultaneous telephone channels between Dublin and London and on to mainland Europe, meaning many millions of contacts were picked up.
Although the surveillance, carried out between 1990 and 1997, was permissible in British law under the Interception of Communications Act 1985, the court said the discretion granted to the British government by that law was “virtually unfettered”.
It said the lack of protections against abuse of power was a violation of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights which states that everyone has the right to privacy and their privacy can only be interfered with in the interests of national security or other extreme circumstances.
The court said that even in those circumstances, only communications coming from particular addresses in Britain, specified in detailed warrants, could have been legally intercepted. In addition, the 1985 law failed to explain to the public the procedure for selecting, sharing, storing and destroying intercepted material.
Costs of €7,500 were awarded to the groups who took the case in a campaign that began in 1999 after a television programme revealed the existence of the Electronic Test Facility (EFT) installed and run by the British Ministry of Defence on a 50m high tower attached to a uranium enrichment plant at Capenhurst, Cheshire.
Surveillance by the EFT ended in 1998 when the telecommunications system in Ireland switched to new technology.
Mark Kelly, director of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, welcomed the ruling but said it also cast doubts on the legality of Ireland’s own practice of extensively tracking citizen’s phone calls and emails.
Digital Rights Ireland chairman TJ McIntyre said: “It is a clear statement from the Court of Human Rights that indiscriminate surveillance will generally be incompatible with the right to privacy under the European Convention on Human Rights.”
The Department of Foreign Affairs made no response to the ruling yesterday. A spokeswoman said the department was examining the judgment.