UK High Court rejects civil liberties challenge to mass surveillance powers

UK High Court rejects civil liberties challenge to mass surveillance powers
Legal

The UK’s High Court has rejected a challenge by a civil liberties group, arguing that the government’s mass surveillance powers represent a violation of human rights, according to The Guardian.

The civil rights group Liberty had claimed that elements of the 2016 Investigatory Powers Act (IPA), called the “snooper’s charter” by critics, allow the government to “to spy on every one of us.”

The measure allows for mass surveillance of electronic devices, including the interception and storage of data by intelligence agencies, without the need to target individuals and justify suspicion in order to hack each device. 

Liberty has claimed this constitutes unlawfully broad surveillance, without effective safeguards to prevent abuse. In particular, they argued that the ‘bulk’ collection powers granted by the IPA represent an invasion of individual privacy.

Data collected under warrants can include browsing history, apps downloaded to a phone, usernames and passwords, and location data. But the group said the warrants don’t cover the collection of this data in bulk, and that the data would be stored long after the expiration of warrants. 

“These bulk surveillance powers allow the state to hoover up the messages, calls and web history of hordes of ordinary people who are not suspected of any wrongdoing,” according to Liberty lawyer Megan Goulding. 

She called the new judgement “disappointing,” and the group said they would appeal the decision. 

“We will challenge this judgment in the courts, and keep fighting for a targeted surveillance regime that respects our rights,” Goulding said. 

As part of its challenge to the law, Liberty had revealed what it called “shocking” revelations of UK authorities failing to comply with safeguards against abuse. 

According to the group, the intelligence agency MI5 had failed to destroy collected material in a timely manner, and had copied and stored data in “ungoverned spaces” without proper controls. In June, the intelligence agency admitted that it had lost track of what data was held, and that it had first learned in 2016 that data was held in such spaces, in violation of its own policies. 

Liberty argued that these missteps demonstrate that the agency was failing to comply with the safeguards required by the IPA. 

The High Court acknowledged the seriousness of those failures, with the judges noting they “are very conscious that the recent disclosures made by the defendants about MI5’s handling procedures have caused the investigatory powers commissioner obvious concern and will cause others in society concern too.”

But in a ruling Monday, Lord Justice Singh and Mr. Justice Holgate disagreed that these failures suggest that the IPA itself is unlawful, and said that “a suite of inter-locking safeguards” ensures that the act doesn’t violate human rights. 

According to Goulding:

“The court recognized the seriousness of MI5’s unlawful handling of our data, which only emerged as a result of this litigation. The security services have shown that they cannot be trusted to keep our data safe and respect our rights.”

Photo by Anthony M. from Rome, Italy [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]

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