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Landmark ruling over surveillance laws

01 May 2018

THE HIGH Court has ruled that part of the government’s flagship surveillance law, the Investigatory Powers Act, is unlawful – following a legal challenge from human rights campaigning organisation Liberty.

In this first stage of its comprehensive challenge to the law, Liberty focused on government powers to order private companies to store everybody’s communications data, including internet history, so that state agencies can access it. Liberty argued that retaining every person’s data in this way without limits and safeguards violates the UK public’s right to privacy. The case was funded by donations from members of the public.

Both the government and Liberty are claiming victory in the ruling. The Court ruled that this part of the Act is incompatible with people’s fundamental rights because ministers can issue data retention orders without independent review and authorisation.

The Government will now have to amend this part of the Investigatory Powers Act. The Court has given ministers until 1 November 2018 to implement the change.

Liberty director Martha Spurrier said: “Police and security agencies need tools to tackle serious crime in the digital age – but creating the most intrusive surveillance regime of any democracy in the world is unlawful, unnecessary and ineffective.

“Spying on everyone’s internet histories and email, text and phone records with no suspicion of serious criminal activity and no basic protections for our rights undermines everything that’s central to our democracy and freedom – our privacy, free press, free speech, protest rights, protections for journalists’ sources and whistleblowers, and legal and patient confidentiality. It also puts our most sensitive personal information at huge risk from criminal hackers and foreign spies.

“The Court has done what the Government failed to do and protected these vital values – but today’s ruling focuses on just one part of a law that is rotten to the core. It still lets the state hack our computers, tablets and phones, hoover up information about who we speak to, where we go, and what we look at online, and collect profiles of individual people even without any suspicion of criminality. Liberty’s challenge to these powers will continue.”

Liberty claimed that the communication data regime as a whole should be abolished. The government argued that communications data is an essential tool for law enforcement and national security investigations. It says the data is used to investigate crime, keep children safe, support or disprove alibis and link a suspect to a particular crime scene, among other purposes.

The Court found that the government’s current data retention regime is neither general nor indiscriminate, stating, “We do not think it could possibly be said that the legislation requires, or even permits, a general and indiscriminate retention of communications data”.

Security minister Ben Wallace said: “We are delighted that the Court has agreed with the government on all counts in this judgment.

“Liberty has for years created misplaced fear about this legislation, and we are pleased that the Court recognises the importance of communications data in fighting crime and keeping families and communities safe.

“This sensible, pragmatic judgment rightly balances all the rights of individuals with protecting people’s security. In the 21st century if we are to protect our citizens from threats by paedophiles and terrorists we must have these capabilities.”