Lawyer Elizabeth Knight is fighting for user protection but fears new European laws won’t go far enough
When Edward Snowden’s disclosures of large scale, secretive state surveillance began to emerge via the Guardian newspaper nearly two years ago, human rights lawyerElizabeth Knight saw her perspective shift.
“With Snowden’s revelations, I realised the biggest human rights issue, in the UK certainly – and more broadly – was privacy. That’s really what attracted me to Open Rights Group,” says the solicitor, who a year ago became the legal director of the UK digital rights and civil liberties advocacy organisation.
She describes Open Rights Group (ORG) as “an organisation that promotes human rights in the digital age”, with a particular focus on privacy and freedom of expression.
In that role, the group has been to the forefront of confronting the UK government over Snowden’s disclosures of mass communications surveillance by Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ). Some of the 200,000-plus documents handed over by Snowden indicated GCHQ had been routinely tapping all data running over major fibreoptic cables running in and out of Britain, including subsea cables to Ireland.
“The reason those disclosures are so important is they were the first revelation of the failure of our own oversight mechanisms,” she says.
UK politicians and designated oversight bodies, such as the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee, were unaware of the scale of spying and the sheer volume of data-gathering, done wholesale and without any particular target in mind, she says. The UK’s intelligence services can process 21 petabytes – 39 billion pieces of data – a day, according to the Open Rights website.
“We had to learn about this from a foreign whistleblower, rather than our own mechanisms,” Knight says.