Another Major Blow Was Inflicted on the Snooper's Charter in the High Court

By Tom Pritchard on at

The government would very much like to be able to spy on us all the time, without any particular reason other than it feels like it, with the option of storing whatever data it likes in case one or two of us are secretly terrorists. Fortunately the surveillance regime just can't help but completely fail when it's under the scrutiny of the courts. The EU saws the Snooper's Charter's data retention is unlawful, the UK Court of Appeals says its predecessor was unlawful, and now it's been dealt yet another blow.

Civil Rights Group Liberty crowdfunded a legal challenge that brought aspects of the act before the UK High Court, and today the High Court has ruled in favour of a number of those challenges. We're specifically talking about the part of the act that forces communications companies and service providers to log users' communications data, web activity, and location information for 12 months. The government has always maintained that this was necessary for the purposes of national security, along with the old "nothing to hide, nothing to fear" line.

Liberty took issue with the fact that this information could be accessed by a number of public bodies, without the needing to obtain a warrant first and for very flimsy reasons. For starters the barrier of entry was for "fighting crime" rather than specifically dealing with serious crimes, along with the fact the data could be accessed and used for reasons beyond law enforcement - like collecting taxes and fines, or regulating financial services.

Despite the win, the court did not take issue with the Liberty's claim that the Snooper's Charter allows “general and indiscriminate” retention of data, ruling that this isn't actually the case. That's despite the fact that the EU Court of Justice says it is, and it currently holds higher rank than the High Court. Regardless, the aspects of the legislation that have been declared unlawful by the High Court have to be changed by 1st November.

Despite the rulings against it, the Home Office's response has jumped on the ruling that the data retention is not unlawful, cricitsing Liberty for creating "misplaced fear":

"In a detailed analysis, the Court found that our 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”.

We have already committed to bring forward amendments to our regime for Parliament to debate and vote on, along with the communications data code of practice, and will do so in line with the Court’s timetable."

Martha Spurrier, director of Liberty, 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."

In the wake of this sort-of win, Liberty has also opened up the second part of its crowdfunding campaign, designed to fight other major surveillance powers like bulk hacking, bulk communication interception, and the linking of personal data via ‘bulk personal datasets’. Spurrier also added:

“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.”