BRITISH SPY AGENCIES are under scrutiny in a landmark court case challenging the legality of top-secret mass surveillance programs revealed in documents leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden.

A panel of 10 judges at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, held a hearing Tuesday to examine the U.K. government’s large-scale electronic spying operations, following three separate challenges brought by a dozen human rights groups, including Amnesty International, Privacy International, the American Civil Liberties Union, Big Brother Watch, the Open Rights Group, and the Irish Council for Civil Liberties.

The case is the first of its kind to be heard by the court, which handles complaints related to violations of the European Convention on Human Rights, an international treaty by which the U.K. is still bound despite its vote last year to leave the European Union. The court’s judgments could have ramifications for future U.K. surveillance operations.

The human rights groups are arguing that British spy programs violate four key rights protected under the convention: the right to privacy; the right to a fair trial; the right to freedom of expression; and the right not to be discriminated against. They cite a 2015 ruling by a U.K. tribunal, which found that British eavesdropping agency Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ, had unlawfully spied on the communications of Amnesty International and the South Africa-based Legal Resources Centre.

Dinah Rose, a lawyer representing the human rights groups, acknowledged in court Tuesday that some serious security threats require the use of covert government surveillance. But, she added, “excessive and unaccountable state surveillance puts at risk the very core values of the free and democratic societies that terrorism seeks to undermine.”

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