Liberty wins landmark Snoopers’ Charter case

Posted on 24 Jun 2022

  • Court rules security services have been unlawfully permitted to access personal communications data from telecom providers as part of the ‘Snoopers’ Charter’
  • Security services will now need independent authorisation to access private communications data, such as telephone and text message records, when carrying out criminal investigations
  • Surveillance safeguards must continue to be strengthened to protect privacy and free expression, Liberty says

Human rights organisation Liberty has achieved a landmark victory in a legal challenge against powers used by Government bodies to spy on the UK population.

In a judgment handed down today (24 June), the High Court of Justice ruled that it is unlawful for the security services – MI5, MI6 and GCHQ – to obtain individuals’ communications data from telecom providers without having prior independent authorisation, when those bodies are carrying out criminal investigations.

Since 2016, the Investigatory Powers Act (IPA) – otherwise known as the Snoopers’ Charter – has provided state agencies access to our private communications and personal information regardless of whether they suspect us of any wrongdoing. Data that can be accessed under the Act includes telephone records, text messages, location history and internet browsing history.

In handing down its judgment, the Court ruled that there are insufficient safeguards within the Act when it comes to the security services obtaining people’s private data. The judgment means that the security services will no longer have the power, when carrying out criminal investigations, to get detailed information on us from telecom providers without having first obtained independent approval that this is necessary and proportionate. This requirement already applies to the police and, following today’s judgment, will also apply to the security services. The court ruled that there is no reason for the security services not to be subject to the same safeguards as the police when also conducting the same criminal investigative function.

This judgment is the latest stage in a long-running battle fought by Liberty over surveillance powers within the Snooper’s Charter. Liberty believes that powers within the IPA are too broad and the safeguards around bulk powers fail to protect rights to privacy and free expression, including safeguards protecting journalists and their sources.

Liberty has called on the Government to introduce proper safeguards into the IPA that protect human rights, including the right to privacy and free expression.

Liberty intends to apply for permission to appeal on certain points decided against it in today’s judgment, such as on whether the bulk powers in the IPA permit indiscriminate and generalised data collection and thus require a higher level of safeguards, and whether prior independent authorisation is required each time state agencies look at our data that they have stored.

Liberty’s wider case against the IPA also continues before the Court of Appeal, for which Liberty already has permission to proceed on five out of its six grounds. Liberty has reapplied for permission on its sixth ground from the Court of Appeal.

Liberty lawyer Megan Goulding said:

“We all want to have control over our personal information, and to have a government that respects our rights to privacy and freedom of expression. This judgment is a major victory in the fight against mass surveillance.

“The Court has agreed that it’s too easy for the security services to get their hands on our data. From now on, when investigating crime, MI5, MI6 and GCHQ will have to obtain independent authorisation before being able to access our communications data.

“Mass surveillance powers do not make us safer, they breach our privacy and undermine core pillars of our democracy. Today represents a huge landmark in reining in mass surveillance powers, and we hope now the Government creates proper safeguards that protect our rights.”

Shamik Dutta of Bhatt Murphy, Ben Jaffey QC of Blackstone Chambers and David Heaton and Sophie Bird of Brick Court Chambers act for Liberty.

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