The big debate on mass surveillance and privacy didn’t begin with Edward Snowden. The debate was already raging in 1999. The cause was a TV show reporting on the UK Ministry of Defence surveillance program. Liberty and a number of others British non governmental organisations did not like at all what they saw. They realised they may have been victims of the reported systematic mass surveillance of all telecommunications across the UK.
A case was launched, and – after nine years of fruitless battling in domestic courts – eventually ended up before the European Court of Human Rights. The Strasbourg judges did not need to go into the substance of the case to condemn the UK. They recognized that the mere existence of a vague and ambiguous legal framework regulating surveillance practices was a violation of the right to privacy. In other words, the “virtually unfettered” discretion exercised by the UK government in shaping its surveillance system was condemned as wrong by itself.
Then, in 2013, Edward Snowden’s revelations brought new awareness on governmental systems of mass surveillance and made way to a number of cases against the UK government (including another one by Liberty and one by a second group of NGOs). Those cases will inevitably end up in Strasbourg at some point, testing the interpretation provided with the 2008 Liberty case: will the UK’s mass surveillance regime be compatible with human rights? Whatever happens, the European Convention remains an important limit on the state’s power to spy on its citizens.