By Alan Travis
Appeal court judges have ruled the government’s mass digital surveillance regime unlawful in a case brought by the Labour deputy leader, Tom Watson.
Liberty, the human rights campaign group which represented Watson in the case, said the ruling meant significant parts of the Investigatory Powers Act 2016 – known as the snooper’s charter – are effectively unlawful and must be urgently changed.
The government defended its use of communications data to fight serious and organised crime and said that the judgment related to out of date legislation. Minister Ben Wallace said that it would not affect the way law enforcement would tackle crime.
The court of appeal ruling on Tuesday said the powers in the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act 2014, which paved the way for the snooper’s charter legislation, did not restrict the accessing of confidential personal phone and web browsing records to investigations of serious crime, and allowed police and other public bodies to authorise their own access without adequate oversight.
The three judges said Dripa was “inconsistent with EU law” because of this lack of safeguards, including the absence of “prior review by a court or independent administrative authority”.
Responding to the ruling, 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.”
Martha Spurrier, the director of Liberty, 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.”
She said no politician was above the law. “When will the government stop bartering with judges and start drawing up a surveillance law that upholds our democratic freedoms?”
The Home Office announced a series of safeguards in November in anticipation of the ruling. They include removing the power of self-authorisation for senior police officers and requiring approval for requests for confidential communications data to be granted by the new investigatory powers commissioner. Watson and other campaigners said the safeguards were “half-baked” and did not go far enough.
The judges, headed by Sir Geoffrey Vos, declined to rule on the Home Office claim that the more rigorous “Watson safeguards” were not necessary for the use of bulk communications data for wider national security purposes.
The judges said the appeal court did not need to rule on this point because it had already been referred to the European court of justice in a case which is due to be heard in February.
Watson launched his legal challenge in 2014 in partnership with David Davis, who withdrew when he entered the government as Brexit secretary in 2016. The European court of justice ruled in December 2016 that the “general and indiscriminate retention” of confidential personal communications data was unlawful without safeguards, including independent judicial authorisation.
Security minister Ben Wallace responded to the ruling saying: “Communications data is used in the vast majority of serious and organised crime prosecutions and has been used in every major security service counter-terrorism investigation over the last decade. It is often the only way to identify paedophiles involved in online child abuse as it can be used to find where and when these horrendous crimes have taken place.”
He said the judgment related to legislation which was no longer in force and did not change the way in which law enforcement agencies could detect and disrupt crimes.
“We had already announced that we would be amending the Investigatory Powers Act to address the two areas in which the court of appeal has found against the previous data retention regime. We welcome the fact that the court of appeal ruling does not undermine the regime and we will continue to defend these vital powers, which Parliament agreed were necessary in 2016, in ongoing litigation,” he said.
Published on The Guardian on January 30, 2018