How to defend civil liberties with lawsuits – and kick governments' butts in the process

Short thesis

Government oversight over intelligence agencies is often toothless. Therefore, courts are the last resort to turn to, and in many cases they have been much more aggressive than politicians in curtailing surveillance agencies’ powers. We will present the latest developments in cases like Reporters without Borders vs. BND and UK groups vs. GCHQ. We will also discuss and develop new ideas for strategic litigation in order to defend civil liberties on as many fronts as possible.


In order to stand up to unlawful government surveillance and to defend our digital civil rights, we have to use all means available to us: technology, politics, and the courts.

Government oversight over intelligence agencies, if at all existent, is often toothless, especially when exerted by parliaments. Therefore, courts are frequently the last resort for citizens to turn to, and in many cases they have been much more aggressive than politicians in curtailing the executive branch’s powers. Layman v. Obama and ACLU v. Clapper are prominent examples from the US.

In Germany, the practice of strategic litigation is in its infancy - for legal reasons (there are no class action lawsuits) but also for lack of experience and political will. Therefore, the lawsuit filed by Reporters without Borders Germany against the BND, arguing that the BND’s data collection and analysis is unlawful, is a unique opportunity to test whether these kinds of lawsuits can be successfully employed to challenge surveillance and protect and foster civil liberties in Germany. Chances are high it will end up at Germany’s Constitutional Court.

To see what’s possible it is worthwhile looking at other EU countries, first and foremost the UK. Civil rights groups like Privacy International, Open Rights Group, Amnesty International, Liberty, English PEN and others have aggressively sued the GCHQ numerous times. Despite many setbacks, the lawsuits have by now uncovered many new aspects of British surveillance practices and the government’s strategies to either hide or justify them. One of the cases will be tried by the European Court of Human Rights, and the UK government has until March 21 to react to the claimants’ allegations.

In this workshop we will present the latest developments in the different cases. We will also discuss and develop strategies for how we can challenge governments’ wrongdoing on more fronts in order to defend civil rights.