Amnesty International has claimed that the UK is leading a Europe-wide “race to the bottom” with Orwellian counter-terrorism measures that seriously threaten human rights.
It has published an in-depth analysis of national security laws across the EU, which it claims shows that the UK has enacted a raft of measures in the name of national security that are amongst the most draconian in the EU.
More than half the areas of concern highlighted by the report claim that the UK is at the extreme end of the spectrum with measures on mass surveillance.
It cites what it calls unreliable “diplomatic assurances” which are used to deport people where there is a risk of torture, stripping people of their nationality, controlling their movements and detaining them without charge or sufficient legal process.
Amnesty says all of these measures undermine fundamental freedoms and dismantle hard-won human rights protections.
The report also shows that similar sweeping new laws across the EU are driving Europe into a deep and dangerous state of permanent securitisation.
The report is based on more than two years' research across 14 EU countries, as well as analysis of initiatives at international and European levels.
The watchdog says these counter-terrorism measures have eroded the rule of law, enhanced executive powers, peeled away judicial controls, restricted freedom of expression and exposed everyone to unchecked government surveillance.
Amnesty said in a statement, “The impact on foreigners and ethnic and religious minorities has been particularly profound.”
Kate Allen, director of Amnesty International UK said: “The Big Brother surveillance state that George Orwell warned of back in 1949 is alive and dangerously well in Europe today. Governments, including the UK, are not far off creating societies in which freedom is the exception and fear the rule, which should be of deep concern to us all.”
“After a series of horrific terrorist attacks across Europe, EU governments have rushed through a raft of repressive laws. There is an obvious and urgent need to protect people from this kind of violence – protecting the rights to life, and to live, move and think freely are essential tasks of government, but they are not ones to be achieved by any means and at the cost of such rights themselves. These laws trample on hard won freedoms that we have long taken for granted. The UK could have been a beacon of progress here, but instead it is leading a race to the bottom. Governments should be providing security for people to enjoy their rights, rather than restricting people's rights in the name of security,” Allen added.
And the UK is not alone in such behaviour, according to Amnesty, many EU countries have joined the ranks of “surveillance states” as new laws allowing indiscriminate mass surveillance have been passed giving intrusive powers to security and intelligence services.
Mass surveillance powers have also been granted or otherwise expanded in France, Germany, Poland, Hungary, Austria, Belgium and the Netherlands, among others, allowing the mass interception of and possible access to the data of millions of people.
Amnesty says that Poland's 2016 Counter-terrorism Law permits covert surveillance measures targeting foreign nationals, including wire-tapping, monitoring of electronic communications and surveillance of telecommunications networks and devices without any judicial oversight for three months.
In November, the UK's Investigatory Powers Act – or “Snoopers Charter” – gained royal assent, containing some of the most sweeping surveillance powers in the world, allowing for the indiscriminate interception of data including emails and phone records.
Amnesty said in a statement, “Despite the government's assurances to the contrary, this legislation threatens to have devastating consequences for privacy and other human rights in the UK and beyond.”
It gave the example of David Miranda, a Brazilian national who was assisting with the journalistic investigation into Edward Snowden's surveillance revelations, was stopped under terrorism powers while transiting through the UK in 2013. He was detained, searched and interrogated for nine hours on suspicion of involvement in “espionage” and “terrorism”.
However, the government is fully adamant these powers are needed to fight evil. In a GCHQ briefing prior to the bill being passed, an operative calling himself Peter told SC that the bulk retention powers were necessary to fight crime and terrorism.
He described what he says was an actual case where a mobile phone picked up after a firefight near Raqqa was investigated and because there were historic records held for the phone, these enabled identification of previously unknown associates connected to ISIS, who were prevented from engaging in terrorism.
And David Anderson QC, the UK's anti-terror law watchdog, agrees. Anderson gave his approval of the Investigatory Powers Bill (IPB) in a report titled ‘The Bulk Powers Review' for this very reason.
Anderson's 192-page report examined in detail a series of cases where GCHQ used bulk snooping on people's email, phone and internet use to save lives, and succeeded.
For this reason, the controversial law, which allows intelligence agencies to monitor people's online activities, was approved by Anderson who said there was a “proven operational case” for MI5, MI6 and GCHQ to continue in their bulk collection of data.
Likewise, Prime Minister Theresa May, who sparked the plans for the legislation in her time as Home Secretary said the report, “demonstrates how the bulk powers are of crucial importance.”
Early on in 2016, the government noted its contention that without retaining Internet Connection Records (ICRs – a record of the internet services that a specific device connects to such as a website or instant messaging application), it is not possible for law enforcement and security agencies to identify consistently who has sent a particular communication online, information often deemed necessary to carry out their work.
However the privacy watchdog Liberty has contended this view on bulk data sets, it said in a statement that: “This provides a goldmine of valuable personal information for criminal hackers and foreign spies. Using ‘bulk personal datasets' – the Act lets agencies acquire and link vast databases held by the public or private sector. These contain details on religion, ethnic origin, sexuality, political leanings and health problems, potentially on the entire population, and are ripe for abuse and discrimination.”