U.K. court strikes down sweeping government surveillance law

The United Kingdom’s top court ruled Friday that the British government’s controversial new surveillance powers are inconsistent with European Union law and must be corrected.

The U.K. High Court ruling voids key sections of the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act, which Prime Minister David Cameron‘s conservative government pushed through Parliament at unusual speed despite an outcry from privacy groups and civil-liberties advocates. The court stayed its own ruling until March 2016.

The surveillance bill requires British companies to retain records of U.K. citizens’ communications for a year. It sets out vague requirements for accessing the data, leading privacy groups to worry that government agencies could invent reasons to request it in trivial circumstances.

“Campaigners, MPs across the political spectrum, the Government’s own reviewer of terrorism legislation are all calling for judicial oversight and clearer safeguards.” 

That vagueness was a key factor in the British court’s ruling. The judges said that the law exceeded the surveillance authority permitted under E.U. law by allowing data requests for any situation, not just investigations related to serious crimes.

The judges also called the absence of judicial review unacceptable, highlighting “the need for [data request] approval to be by a judge or official wholly independent of the force or body making the application.”

Liberty, the British privacy group that represented the two Members of Parliament who challenged the law, praised the ruling in a statement.

“Campaigners, MPs across the political spectrum, the Government’s own reviewer of terrorism legislation are all calling for judicial oversight and clearer safeguards,” said James Welch, Liberty’s legal director. “The High Court has now added its voice, ruling key provisions of DRIPA unlawful. Now is the time for the Home Secretary to commit publicly to surveillance conducted with proper respect for privacy, democracy and the rule of law—not plough on with more of the same.”

The BBC noted that the unusual decision by British lawmakers to sue their own government reflected the speed with which the surveillance law was fast-tracked through Parliament. “The two MPs say that because the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act was rushed through in days, there was no time for proper parliamentary scrutiny and that this judicial review was their only option,” the BBC reported.

John Hayes, the British security minister, said the government “disagree[d] absolutely with this judgement and will seek an appeal.”

Hayes said that the government needed sweeping authority to collect citizens’ Internet records. “Communications data is not just crucial in the investigation of serious crime,” he said. “It is also a fundamental part of investigating other crimes which still have a severe impact, such as stalking and harassment, as well as locating missing people, including vulnerable people who have threatened to commit suicide.”

The scope of data requests and the independence of the body approving them have become major issues in the United States. Congress recently passed the USA Freedom Act in response to criticism of a key spying power that has emboldened far-reaching actions by the National Security Agency and the 17-member U.S. intelligence community. Critics of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which approves many NSA wiretap requests, say that FISC judges are too deferential to the government, suggesting that even judicial review is not without its complications.

The British government is already looking past the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act at an event broader law called the Draft Communications Data Bill, also known as the “Snoopers’ Charter.” Privacy activists have mobilized to kill the bill, which covers communications metadata instead of content and was proposed in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack in France early this year.

Photo via @LIQUIDBONEZ/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) | Remix by Max Fleishman

Eric Geller

Eric Geller

Eric Geller is a politics reporter who focuses on cybersecurity, surveillance, encryption, and privacy. A former staff writer at the Daily Dot, Geller joined Politico in June 2016, where he's focused on policymaking at the White House, the Justice Department, the State Department, and the Commerce Department.