UK Government Surveillance Regime Ruled Unlawful
The Government is breaking the law by collecting the nation’s internet activity and phone records and letting public bodies grant themselves access to these personal details with no suspicion of serious crime and no independent sign-off – meaning significant parts of its latest Snoopers’ Charter are effectively unlawful.
Judges at the Court of Appeal have today backed a challenge by MP Tom Watson, represented by Liberty, to the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act (DRIPA) – a previous law covering state surveillance.
DRIPA expired at the end of 2016 – but the Government replicated and vastly expanded the same powers in the Investigatory Powers Act, which started to come into force in 2017. Liberty is challenging this latest law in a major separate case, to be heard in the High Court later this year.
In anticipation of this ruling, the Government has already conceded that the Investigatory Powers Act will need to change. But its half-baked plans do not even fully comply with past court rulings requiring mandatory safeguards – and they continue to allow public bodies to indiscriminately retain and access personal data, including records of internet use, location tracking using mobile phones and records of who we communicate with and when.
Martha Spurrier, Liberty’s Director, said: “Yet again a UK court has ruled the Government’s extreme mass surveillance regime unlawful. This judgment tells ministers in crystal clear terms that they are breaching the public’s human rights. The latest incarnation of the Snoopers’ Charter, the Investigatory Powers Act, must be changed.
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“No politician is above the law. When will the Government stop bartering with judges and start drawing up a surveillance law that upholds our democratic freedoms?”
Tom Watson MP said: “This legislation was flawed from the start. It was rushed through Parliament just before recess without proper parliamentary scrutiny.
“The Government must now bring forward changes to the Investigatory Powers Act to ensure that hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom are innocent victims or witnesses to crime, are protected by a system of independent approval for access to communications data. I’m proud to have played my part in safeguarding citizen’s fundamental rights.”
Court of Appeal judges today ruled DRIPA breached British people’s rights because, among other things, it:
- did not restrict access to this data, in the context of the investigation and prosecution of crime, to the purpose of fighting serious crime.
- let police and public bodies authorise their own access, instead of subjecting access requests to prior authorisation by a court or independent body.
What this means for the Investigatory Powers Act
Since this legal challenge was launched in 2014, the Investigatory Powers Act has not only re-legislated for the powers found unlawful today, but gone much further.
The Act dramatically expanded powers to gather data on the entire population, while maintaining the lack of safeguards that resulted in this legal challenge. It also legalised other unprecedented mass surveillance powers – including mass hacking, spying on phone calls and emails on an industrial scale and collecting huge databases containing sensitive information on millions of people.
These indiscriminate powers are also unlawful and Liberty is challenging them in a separate case, having crowdfunded more than £50,000 in just a few days to support their challenge.
Tom launched his challenge to DRIPA in 2014. The law forced communications companies to store detailed information about the locations of people using devices such as mobile phones, as well as the who, when and how of every email, text, phone call and internet communication – including those of MPs, lawyers, doctors and journalists.
Tom argued that the Act contained inadequate protections for British people’s fundamental rights – letting hundreds of organisations and government agencies, from police forces to HMRC, grant themselves access to this highly personal and revealing data for a huge range of reasons that had nothing to do with investigating serious crime.
The High Court agreed with him in 2015. The Government appealed – and the Court of Appeal referred the case to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) for clarification.
In December 2016, the ECJ echoed the High Court’s ruling – and went further, setting down a series of safeguards that the Government needed to introduce to properly protect people’s privacy.
On 30 November 2017, the Home Office accepted that the Investigatory Powers Act needed changing as a result of the ECJ judgment – but the proposed changes fall far short of what the ECJ said was needed.