Rights groups win phone tap case against Britain

A man is seen on the telephone in a file photo. REUTERS/Catherine Benson

STRASBOURG, France (Reuters) - Europe’s top rights court ruled against the government on Tuesday for intercepting telephone calls between British and Irish rights groups and their clients, violating their right to privacy.

Rights group Liberty and its Irish counterparts British Irish Rights Watch and the Irish Council for Civil Liberties said Britain set up an eavesdropping facility in northwestern England that intercepted much of the telephone, fax and e-mail traffic between Britain and Ireland in the 1990s.

The Defence Ministry site in Capenhurst, Cheshire, intercepted all public telecommunications carried by microwave radio between two British Telecom radio stations between 1990 and 1997, the rights groups said.

Much of their communications would have passed through those radio stations and would therefore have been picked up by the Capenhurst Electronic Test Facility, which was designed to intercept 10,000 simultaneous telephone channels, they said.

For security reasons, Britain neither confirmed nor denied the statements made about its surveillance activities, but it agreed that the court could presume some of the civil liberties’ groups communications were intercepted.

“The court recalled that it had previously found that the mere existence of legislation which allowed communications to be monitored secretly had entailed a surveillance threat for all those to whom the legislation might be applied,” the court said in a statement.

“In the applicants’ case, the Court therefore found that there had been an interference with their rights as guaranteed by Article 8,” the court said referring to the article in the European Charter of Human Rights on the right to privacy.

The 1985 Interception of Communications Act gave British authorities “extremely broad discretion” to intercept communications between Britain and another country, it added.

“The Court considered that the domestic law at the relevant time had not indicated with sufficient clarity, so as to provide adequate protection against abuse of power,” it added.

Reporting by Gilbert Reilhac; writing by Francois Murphy