UK court says mass digital surveillance regime unlawful

A UK appeal court has ruled that the government’s mass digital surveillance regime is unlawful, in a case brought by Labour deputy leader Tom Watson.

Human rights campaign group Liberty represented the Labour leader in the case.

The Court of Appeal said the powers in the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act 2014 (DRIPA), which paved the way for the ‘snooper’s charter’ legislation, did not restrict the police and other public bodies from accessing confidential personal phone and web browsing records of citizens.

DRIPA, which was passed in 2014, law paved the way for the 2016’s Investigatory Powers Act, which authorised greater intrusive powers.

Three judges, headed by Geoffrey Vos, said DRIPA was “inconsistent with EU law” because of lack of safeguards, including the absence of “prior review by a court or independent administrative authority”.

Defending its use of communications data to fight serious and organised crime, the government said that the judgement related to out-of-date legislation.

Security Minister Ben Wallace said that the ruling would not affect the way law enforcement would tackle crime.

Watson began his legal case against DRIPA in 2014 in partnership with David Davis, who withdrew from the case when he entered the government as Brexit secretary in 2016.

The Home Office, which anticipated the ruling, had announced certain safeguards in November 2017, including removing the power of self-authorisation for senior police officers and requiring approval by the new investigatory powers commissioner for requests for confidential communications data.

However, Watson and others termed the safeguards “half-baked”.

Responding to the judgement, Liberty said the ruling meant significant parts of the Investigatory Powers Act 2016 must be urgently changed.

Liberty director Martha Spurrier said: “Yet again a UK court has ruled the government’s extreme mass surveillance regime unlawful. This judgement tells ministers in crystal clear terms that they are breaching the public’s human rights.

“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 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 citizens’ fundamental rights.”

In December 2016, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) had ruled that the UK’s “general and indiscriminate retention” of communications data was unlawful without safeguards, including independent judicial authorisation.