Liberty Human Rights and their Irish equivalents, the British Irish Rights Watch and the Irish Council for Civil Liberties have actually won a case before the European Court of Human Rights against the United Kingdom Government, regarding domestic and international telephone and other electronic data communications interceptions.in the 1990s.
This affair was brought to light through the discovery, back in 1999, of the Capenhurst Phone Tap Tower (now since demolished), which was built and operated in secret by GCHQ on part of the secure Capenhurst factory run by British Nuclear Fuels. This is conveniently located directly between two of the main microwave relays operated by British Telecom, which used to be the main telecommunications link between the Republic of Ireland and the UK and the rest of Europe (still in use, but there are fibre optic cables now as well).
Why that had to do this at all, rather than GCHQ installing their telephone tapping equipment with the cooperation of British Telecom within their infrastructure, is a mystery. Presumably, now that digital telephone exchanges are universal in the UK, such telephone tapping (supposedly under warrant) is technically easier, even though the technology has improved and data volumes have got bigger.
The ECHR has found that the claimants rights to privacy in communications under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, was breached, because the then currently applicable law the Interception of Communications Act 1985 was not sufficiently clear about the secret alleged safeguards regarding the capture, selection, keyword filtering, dissemination, data retention and eventual destruction of intercepted material, which are supposed to protect the public from excessive snooping by overzealous, jobsworth or corrupt officials.
41. The applicants complained about the interception of their communications, contrary to Article 8 of the Convention:
"1. Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.
2. There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of this right except such as is in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others."
Essentially, because the telephone interception "safeguards" were (and still are) so secret, and because the Interception of Communications Commissioner (both under IPCA and under RIPA) never make things any clear to the public either, these mass surveillance telephone interceptions were ruled as not being "in accordance with law".
69. In conclusion, the Court does not consider that the domestic law at the relevant time indicated with sufficient clarity, so as to provide adequate protection against abuse of power, the scope or manner of exercise of the very wide discretion conferred on the State to intercept and examine external communications. In particular, it did not, as required by the Court's case-law, set out in a form accessible to the public any indication of the procedure to be followed for selecting for examination, sharing, storing and destroying intercepted material. The interference with the applicants' rights under Article 8 was not, therefore, "in accordance with the law".
70. It follows that there has been a violation of Article 8 in this case.
The case has taken so long to come through this ECHR process, that the IOCA 1985 law has been repealed by the newer Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000.
The ECHR has awarded modest costs of 7,500 Euros to Liberty etc., but there are no punitive damages against the United Kingdom Government.
The Court note that it was possible to make the secret safeguards a lot more public, without endangering "sources and methods" which might compromise National Security, as , for example, the German Government has done with its G10 Act, or as indeed, the UK Government has done to some extent, with the partial publication of RIPA Codes of Practice.
However, there does not appear to be anything in the ECHR judgment which orders the UK Government to be any less secretive, or any more transparent and accountable to the public. regarding such telephone interceptions.
The only crumb of comfort would seem to be that this ECHR judgment applies equally to both international and domestic telephone interceptions, which does not really amount to much comfort, given today's technology and the current, all encompassing RIPA legislation.
This looks like a moral victory for the human rights defenders, but a practical one for the surveillance state snooper bureaucrats.
The only glimmer of hope is that, perhaps, some of the saner and more decent people within the Whitehall bureaucracy, might just be able to use this ECHR judgment, to press for a full review of the over-broad, over-complicated and opaque Regulation of Invesigatory Powers Act, and its very weak public safeguards.