Mass surveillance and Snoopers' Charter


Posted on 04 Jan 2023

For nearly a decade, Liberty has been engaged in multiple legal actions against the Government and security services as we seek to protect everyone’s rights to privacy and freedom of expression.

In early 2023 we’re expecting the latest judgment in our case against MI5 and the Home Office over unlawful surveillance warrants.

What’s the case about?

Liberty and Privacy International have taken MI5 and the Home Office to court over unlawful surveillance warrants used to spy on members of the public.

Put simply, this case is about MI5’s failures to follow surveillance safeguards and inform its oversight bodies about its law-breaking.

This wrongdoing has happened for more than a decade, enabled by the weaknesses in the controversial Snoopers’ Charter.

Successive Home Secretaries repeatedly ignored the signs and failed to investigate MI5’s unlawful handling of our data, and continued to sign off on surveillance warrants unlawfully.

What’s happened?

In a landmark case heard by the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (hearing 25-29 July 2022), Liberty and Privacy International said that for years MI5 breached legal safeguards around how long it retained data, who had access to data, and how it protected legally privileged material.

Data that might have been unlawfully retained and accessed could include anyone’s personal phone data and private correspondence between lawyers and their clients, and journalists and their sources.

MI5 unlawfully gave false information to its oversight bodies, to keep getting surveillance warrants.

MI5 admitted it stored the public’s data when it had no legal right to do so and that it failed to disclose this to the Home Office and other oversight bodies.

What are we calling for?

Liberty and Privacy International are seeking the following remedies:

  • MI5 and the Home Office to be held accountable for their wrongdoing
  • The Investigatory Powers Act (IPA) – otherwise known as the Snoopers’ Charter – to be declared unlawful for failing to protect our rights
  • All warrants unlawfully granted should be quashed
  • All unlawfully retained data should be deleted

Why we should all be worried about this

No matter who we are, or what we believe in, we all have basic rights to privacy and free expression.

But under the Snoopers’ Charter – the Government has the power to spy on anyone. They can collect, store and examine our data when we’ve done nothing wrong.

For years, Liberty has been saying that that the safeguards in the Snoopers’ Charter are insufficient to protect our rights. And we’ve been right – MI5 has been able to ignore surveillance safeguards, handle data however it wanted, and no one spotted what was going wrong.

Because MI5 has the power to collect anyone’s data, we’re all affected. Under current powers, any communication we make, even the data we just store on our phones, can be collected, saved and used against us. MI5 and the Home Office’s failings violate everybody’s right to privacy and freedom of expression.

The UK surveillance regime threatens our privacy and freedom of expression, and by undermining legal and journalistic confidentiality, key democratic safeguards.

We need our surveillance laws to be targeted and suspicion based, proportionate and heavily restricted to prevent abuse of power.

What’s the bigger picture?

Without this case – and Liberty’s other case challenging the IPA, in which the factual details behind this case emerged – the fact of MI5’s breaches would likely not be public.

The details of MI5’s law-breaking stretch over a ten-year period and were first disclosed in 2019 as part of Liberty’s separate legal challenge to the IPA, in which the Government was forced to admit that MI5 might be failing to comply with surveillance laws.

For nearly a decade, Liberty has been engaged in multiple legal actions against the Government and security services as we seek to protect everyone’s rights to privacy and freedom of expression.

A judgment is expected to be handed down in early 2023.

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