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EU told GCHQ 'broke the law'

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The mass surveillance of UK and European citizens by GCHQ and America's National Security Agency contravened international law, according to experts appearing before a European Parliament inquiry.

London Metropolitan University Professor of International Law, Douwe Korff, told the Parliament's influential Civil Liberties Committee that the "kind of surveillance we now know that has taken place is utterly incompatible with the most fundamental rights and data protection principles in the EU".

The Committee is investigating the UK and US secret surveillance programmes revealed by ex-CIA employee Edward Snowden. Korff told them in a statement that “European states have a ‘positive obligation' to protect their citizens from surveillance...perpetrated by any other state.”

Also appearing was Nick Pickles from London-based Big Brother Watch, who explained why his organisation and others have launched a lawsuit against the UK in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). The aim is to ensure the work of GCHQ and Britain's other intelligence agencies is ‘fit for purpose', rather than trying to stop surveillance altogether.

Pickles said: "The objective of Big Brother Watch and our litigation in the ECHR is not to bring about the end of surveillance...our objective is to ensure that, as a democratic state, the United Kingdom's surveillance regime is fit for the digital age."

He also highlighted a change of policy among internet companies, following Snowden's revelation that the NSA's surveillance was carried out with the help of firms such as Facebook, Google, Apple and Microsoft.  According to news reports, on one day last year the NSA's Special Source Operations branch is said to have collected 444,743 email address books from Yahoo, 105,068 from Hotmail, 82,857 from Facebook, 33,797 from Gmail and 22,881 from other providers.

Pickles told the hearing that internet companies and others are now starting to give their customers more information on how they handle their personal data. "We see some movement towards greater transparency," he said.

Meanwhile Martin Scheinin, former UN special rapporteur on human rights, supported Douwe Korff's position, pointing out that GCHQ and the NSA's electronic mass surveillance practices were in breach of Article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

Turning the screw on the UK and US, he said that the European Parliament should consider pushing for an "inter-state complaint mechanism" against both countries for not respecting legal statutes.

He said: "I would not be surprised if certain Latin-American countries considered an inter-state complaint, so why shouldn't Europeans do the same thing?"

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