European court deals blow to controversial UK surveillance law
The European Court of Justice (ECJ) has delivered a blow to the UK’s controversial new surveillance law, the Investigatory Powers Act. The Act, which is commonly known as the “snoopers’ charter” and received royal assent in November, legitimizes a range of government surveillance powers.
Among other things, it requires internet service providers to keep records of their users’ web browsing data for a year so that it can be accessed by a list of government and police departments – a measure that has previously been criticized as unworkable, ineffective and potentially damaging to the UK’s tech sector.
The EU court now says such data collection is not permissible. In a judgment released on Wednesday morning, it rules that EU member states may not force telecommunications companies to indiscriminately retain data about their users. This, it says, is not compatible with EU law on privacy.
The court says that collecting data in this way could “allow very precise conclusions to be drawn concerning the private lives of the persons whose data has been retained” and that it “is likely to cause the persons concerned to feel that their private lives are the subject of constant surveillance.”
This kind of data collection may only be applied in the case of serious crime and must be restricted to what is “strictly necessary”, says the court. Requests to access such data must be reviewed by an independent body.
The judgment follows a challenge brought by a group including Labour Party leader Tom Watson and supported by privacy organisations Open Rights Group, Privacy International and Liberty. They brought a case against the UK’s Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act (DRIPA), a temporary law that expires at the end of this year but shares many points with the new act. The high court ruled the law was illegal but the government appealed, and the ECJ was asked to clarify the law on surveillance.
Following its ruling, campaigners say that key parts of the Investigatory Powers Act will need to be changed.
“Today’s judgment upholds the rights of ordinary British people not to have their personal lives spied on without good reason or an independent warrant. The Government must now make urgent changes to the Investigatory Powers Act to comply with this,” says Liberty director Martha Spurrier.
“This is the first serious post-referendum test for our Government’s commitment to protecting human rights and the rule of law. The UK may have voted to leave the EU, but we didn’t vote to abandon our rights and freedoms.”