Predecessor to the government’s Snoopers’ Charter deemed unlawful, which is a problem for the current Investigatory Powers Act

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?”

Image courtesy of Global Panorama

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.

Who’s watching now? Congress repeals broadband privacy protections

By a slim majority, the US House of Representatives has voted to repeal the broadband privacy protections put in place by the Obama administration. With the protections removed, internet providers such as Comcast or Time Warner will now be able to gather up all your data and use it to make truckloads more money.

Following a win for the internet providers in the Senate last week, the repeal passing by 50-48, Congress sealed the deal with a vote of 215-205 in favour of repeal. Predictably, the vote broke along party lines, with Democrats opposing the repeal while Republicans favoured the corporations. Notably however, 15 Republicans did break party lines to vote alongside the Democrats.

The bill will now pass to the White House and all signs indicate that Donald Trump is strongly in favour of the repeal. Supposedly, there will be a requirement for consumers to opt-in to their internet provider using and sharing their data but it’s hard to believe that, without the now outbound restrictions, there won’t be loopholes and shameless exploitation of the data now available.

Comcast is among the internet service providers that stand to benefit from the repeal. Image courtesy of Mike Mozart

However, in case you were worried that this was all done simply out of greed or well established corporate favouritism amongst the Republican Party, fear not. It turns out, they’re simply being fair. Because websites such as Google and Facebook don’t face the same restrictions as internet providers, it’s only fair for those restrictions to be taken off the providers. Why shouldn’t they also have the chance to hijack and sell your data?

FCC chairman, and one time Verizon Associate General Counsel, Ajit Pai released a statement in which he praised Congress’ decision to overturn “privacy regulations designed to benefit one group of favoured companies over another group of disfavoured companies.”

So, in case it wasn’t abundantly clear here, the issue is not that consumers’ data is vulnerable to misuse by web companies (in which case you think you’d just extend the same restrictions on internet providers to companies such as Google) but that not enough companies are getting the chance to misuse said data.

Notably, while appointed to the FCC by President Obama, Pai only became Chairman under Trump and was in fact initially recommended to the FCC by Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell. Since his appointment as Chairman he has already taken swipes at net neutrality and, with his position in this new repeal, seems determined to ensconce himself, and by extension the FCC, as not so much independent but an additional branch of corporate cronyism.

Donald Trump is thought to be in favour of the repeal. Image courtesy of Andrew Cline / Shutterstock.com

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the recent repeal has significantly spiked interest in the use of VPNs. NordVPN alone has received an 86% surge in inquiries in the last few days. Given that any data passing through standard channels is about to go up for sale, it is perhaps sensible to look into alternatives.

“Such spikes in user interest in VPNs are not unusual – whenever a government announces increase in surveillance, people turn to privacy tools. We saw similar spikes back in November when UK passed the law dubbed ‘The Snoopers Charter’ or after the revelation about CIA surveillance by the Wikileaks,” said NordVPN’s CMO, Marty P Kamden.

“We are worried about the global tendency to invade Internet users’ privacy, and we are glad we can offer a reliable tool that helps people keep their information private. We want to stress that privacy tools are needed every day, not only during such moments – to protect yourself from ever-growing online security threats and increasing surveillance.”

It’s worth remembering that VPNs aren’t a catch-all solution, they rely on you trusting the VPN provider not to do the same thing you’re scared of your internet provider doing to your data, if nothing else. However, with the White House’s signing of the bill all but certain, don’t be too surprised if the ads popping up for you start getting a little too specific in the coming months.