Human rights and journalism campaigners have today welcomed a landmark ruling that mass surveillance by GCHQ violated European law. The test case judgment, from the European Court of Human Rights, is being hailed as a ‘significant step forward’ in the protection of privacy and freedom worldwide.

The five-year-old case, which followed Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing revelations, is the first major challenge to the legality of UK intelligence agencies intercepting private communications in bulk. Big Brother Watch and Others v the United Kingdom concerned complaints by journalists and rights organisations about bulk interception of communications, intelligence-sharing with foreign governments and obtaining communications data from service providers. The claims were brought by a coalition of 14 groups, including Amnesty International and Liberty.

The chamber of the European Court of Human Rights found that the bulk interception regime violated the Article 8 ECHR right to privacy, due to insufficient oversight and safeguards. By six votes to one, the chamber also found that the regime for obtaining data from communications providers breached Article 8.

Both regimes were also found in breach of Article 10 on the right to freedom of expression, as there were insufficient safeguards in respect of confidential journalistic material.

However, the court ruled that the regime for sharing intelligence was not in breach of either article.

Megan Goulding, lawyer for Liberty, said: ’This is a major victory for the rights and freedom of people in the UK. It shows that there is – and should be – a limit to the extent that states can spy on their citizens. Police and intelligence agencies need covert surveillance powers to tackle the threats we face today – but the court has ruled that those threats do not justify spying on every citizen without adequate protections.’

She added: ’Our government has built a surveillance regime more extreme than that of any other democratic nation, abandoning the very rights and freedoms terrorists want to attack. It can and must give us an effective, targeted system that protects our safety, data security and fundamental rights.’

Today’s judgment is not yet final as it may still be referred to the Grand Chamber of the ECtHR. Amnesty said it ’does not go far enough’ in condemning bulk surveillance, because it permits national governments a ’wide margin of appreciation’ in deciding whether to engage in bulk interception and ’greenlights’ vast intelligence sharing with the US National Security Agency.