In Brief

What now for the ‘Snooper’s Charter’?

Labour and human rights groups hail victory after surveillance act ruled unlawful in personal blow to Theresa May

Theresa May’s signature digital surveillance bill, dubbed a ‘Snooper’s Charter’ by critics, has been deemed unlawful by the courts. It is a major blow to the Government and security services.

The sweeping powers created in the Investigatory Powers Act 2016, which allow police to hack into phones and check an individual’s browsing history for up to a year, have proved “hugely controversial and gave British police some of the most far-reaching powers in Europe”, says the Daily Mail.

Now three appeal judges have agreed with a 2016 European Court of Justice decision and ruled that parts of the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act 2014 (Dripa), which paved the way for May’s legislation, are illegal.

The ruling argues that Dripa allowed police and other public bodies to authorise their own access without adequate oversight and was “inconsistent with EU law” because of this lack of safeguards, including the absence of “prior review by a court or independent administrative authority”.

Liberty, the human rights group which brought the case on behalf of Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson, said the ruling meant significant parts of the law would now have to be changed.

The Daily Mirror says the ruling will be particularly embarrassingly for the Prime Minister, not only because she defended the legislation while Home Secretary, but as the original complaint was part-made by Tory MP David Davis - who is now her Brexit Secretary. Davis withdrew his complaint when he joined the Government in July 2016.

Speaking to reporters after the decision, Watson said: “This legislation was flawed from the start. The Government must now bring forward changes to ensure that hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom are innocent victims or witnesses to crime, are protected by a system of independent approval for access to communications data.”

Security minister Ben Wallace responded by saying the judgement related to legislation that was no longer in force and so would not affect the way law enforcement would tackle crime.

Following previous defeats in the High Court and European Court of Justice, and perhaps anticipating yesterday’s ruling, “the Government has already been forced to admit that chunks of the Investigatory Powers Act are illegal”, writes Rebecca Hill in The Register. Last November, it issued a set of amendments which “it hoped would plaster over the faults and bring [the Act] into line”.

Despite attempts to address the issue of oversight, Liberty slammed the “half-baked plans” that “do not even fully comply with past court rulings requiring mandatory safeguards”.

Of particular concern to privacy activists was the plan to lower the threshold for “serious crime” to six months (rather than three years) in prison, “effectively making it easier for the government to slurp up people’s data”, says Hill.

Ministers have long said the Act’s sweeping powers are needed to help in the fight against terrorism and cyber crime “but critics said it is an attack on privacy and an affront to civil liberties”, and it faced stiff opposition in the Commons and the Lords, says the Mail.

Peers also warned that it would “chill” journalism and could have an impact on whistleblowing and stop criticism of figures such as ex-BHS boss Sir Philip Green.

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