How Much Spying Are Spies Allowed? - RightsInfo

How Much Spying Are Spies Allowed?

We know that government agencies collect personal information about us, without our knowledge. Do human rights provide any protection for our personal information? This legal judgment from last week gives us an emphatic and important answer: Yes.

The Investigatory Powers Tribunal (the first level of court in matters like this) has ruled that some data collection by government security and intelligence agencies like GCHQ, MI5 and MI6 have breached Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Spies and privacy


The right to a private and family life is protected by Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (click on this link to see our fabulous infographic on this human right).  However, it is a ‘qualified right’ which means that the state can interfere with our rights if it is legally justified in doing so.

Spy agencies are there to…well…spy on us, so clearly some intrusion on our private lives is necessary for them to do their job. Spies are allowed to intrude so long as they have the authority of law and the amount they intrude is a ‘proportionate’ way of achieving the spies’ aim, for example to protect national security.

In this case, the question was asked whether the collection, storage and use of ‘Bulk Personal Data’ and ‘Bulk Professional Data’ was a breach of Article 8.

What type of data??


Bulk personal data: This is information about a large group of people, many of whom will not be of interest to intelligence services. This includes biographical details, commercial and financial activities, information about communications and travel.

Bulk communications data: This is the “who, when, where and how” of people’s telephone calls and internet use, but not the content of their conversations.

Part of the issue was the data was collected in bulk. One piece of information may not be that great an intrusion on someone’s privacy, but the total amount could be.

Is collecting this data a breach of human rights?


Prior to 2015, this data was collected under s94 Telecommunications Act 1984. It was unclear under this law what information could be taken and how. The Tribunal found that data collected under this law was a breach of Article 8.

However, in February 2015 new guidance came in. The judge said this strikes the right balance between protecting individual privacy and ensuring intelligence agencies can help protect national security. By following this law, spies are not breaching our right to privacy.

  • For the full judgment, see here.
  • With a little help from BBC news.
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About the Author

Naomi Webber

Naomi completed her law degree at Oxford and LLM at UCL. Since then, she has worked as a research assistant and undergraduate teaching fellow. She will commence pupillage in 2018. View all posts by Naomi Webber.
How Much Spying Are Spies Allowed?
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