After years of legal wrangling the UK’s Court of Appeal has ruled the UK government broke the law by letting public bodies grant themselves access to citizens’ internet activity and phone records.
Following a legal challenge, originally brought by Labour deputy leader Tom Watson in 2014, the Court of Appeal ruled that significant parts of the government’s Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act (DRIPA) breached British people’s rights because it gave access to personal details with no suspicion of serious criminal activity, and it let police and public bodies authorise their own access to data.
The ruling is significant because even though DRIPA expired at the end of 2016, its successor the Investigatory Powers Act – dubbed the Snoopers’ Charter – which started to come into force in 2017, re-legislated and expanded the powers found unlawful today.
So, effectively, significant parts of the Snoopers’ Charter are also unlawful.
“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,” said Martha Spurrier, director of the human rights group Liberty, which represented Watson in the case.
“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?”
Watson originally challenged DRIPA in 2014, when he argued the Act contained inadequate protections for British people’s fundamental rights and let hundreds of organisations and government agencies grant themselves access to highly personal and revealing data.
Even though the High Court agreed with Watson, ruling in his favour in 2015, the government appealed the decision, so 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.
As a result of the ECJ judgment, the UK’s Home Office accepted that the Investigatory Powers Act needed changing, but the changes it proposed fell far short of what the ECJ said was needed.
“This legislation was flawed from the start. It was rushed through Parliament just before recess without proper parliamentary scrutiny,” said Tom Watson MP.
“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.”
Liberty is also challenging the Investigatory Powers Act in a separate case, having crowdfunded more than £50,000 in just a few days to support its challenge.