By Alexander Muir
The EU’s highest court has ruled that the UK’s new and controversial Investigatory Powers Act – the ‘snooper’s charter’ – is illegal. According to the court, the “general and indiscriminate retention” of emails and electronic communications by governments is unlawful, maintaining that the use of traffic data in combatting serious crimes is still justified, in the highly-anticipated judgment from the court in Luxembourg.
The findings came in response to a legal challenge initially brought by the Brexit secretary, David Davis, joined by Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson who raised concerns over the legality of the GCHQ’s interception of calls and online messages. Many major privacy groups such as Privacy International and the Open Rights Group have backed the challenge.
The Luxembourg courts were charged with clarifying a contested area of law – surveillance. The court supposed that electronic communications allow “very precise conclusions to be drawn concerning the private lives of persons whose data has been retained,” adding that “interference by national legislation… must therefore be considered to be particularly serious.” The courts affirmed that such intrusion can only be justified in the most serious of circumstances.
Before being appointed as the Brexit minister, Davis had been openly against extensive surveillance of everyday citizens, travelling to Luxembourg to hear the case; Davis argued that this is akin to “treating the entire nation as suspects.”
Despite having been a ferocious critic of the proposed Act, Davis disassociated from the case following his appointment.
The proposed extensions on the surveillance law coincided with the various global atrocities, most notably the attacks on Paris, Brussels and Nice, giving weight to the argument in favour of further intervention in the private lives of citizens.
Lawyers for the U.K. government maintained that interception has prevented a number of attempted terror attacks in recent years.
Watson states that “most of us can accept that our privacy may occasionally be compromised in the interests of keeping us safe, but no one would consent to giving the police or the government the power to arbitrarily seize our phone records… to use as they see fit. It’s for judges, not ministers, to oversee these powers.”
The director of human rights group Liberty, Martha Spurrier, had this to say: [the] “judgement upholds the rights of ordinary British people to not have their personal lives spied on without good reason… this is the first serious post-referendum test for our government’s commitment to protecting human rights and the rule of law.” Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group stated that “blanket surveillance of our communications is intrusive and unacceptable.”
The Home Office responding to the ruling by stating that “the government will be putting forward robust arguments to the court of appeal about the strength of our existing regime for communications data retention and access,” emphasising their “disappointment” -at the ruling.
The shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott argues that these powers would allow for “fishing expeditions where data is collected on a vast number of individuals.”
The boundaries of surveillance and the proposed appeal by the government to the EU courts promises to be an interesting issue, with both implications for the nation, but as an issue of personal interest.