Emergency mass surveillance laws rushed through Parliament last year have been ruled unlawful by the High Court.
The Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill (Dripa), which was pushed through in three days in July 2014, was designed to give GCHQ and other public intelligence authorities the power to gather and retain information on phones calls, text messages and online communications, and force telecommunications companies to retain data for 12 months.
It was deemed necessary by the then-coalition government due to existing powers being invalidated by a ruling from the European Union's Court of Justice. In order to maintain effective guards against serious crime and terrorism, the Home Office argued at the time, new emergency powers were required. A group of British legal experts published an open letter protesting the emergency bill, which gave MPs no time to deliberate the complex legislation. But with little time to raise a strong opposition, the bill was passed and later cemented in law.
In what will be seen as a big win for privacy activists everywhere, a challenge brought by MPs David Davis and Tom Watson has now been proven legitimate. The High Court ruled today that sections 1 and 2 of Dripa are unlawful because they breach Articles 7 and 8 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.
The High Court ruled that the law fails to provide the "clear and precise rules" necessary to ensure data is only accessed in the most serious cases to prevent crime, or accessed when conducting criminal prosecutions relating to those serious offences. Dripa also fails to demand a warrant from a court or independent body. In the ruling the High Court concluded: "The need for that approval to be by a judge or official wholly independent of the force or body making the application should not, provided the person responsible is properly trained or experienced, be particularly cumbersome."
Under the temporary law, around 500,000 requests are granted each year, without judicial oversight, and this is likely to remain the status quo until the emergency bill expires in March 2016 and the government is forced to reassess the legislation. This ruling is likely to carry great weight when it comes to that period of deliberation across Parliament.
"Campaigners, MPs across the political spectrum, the government's own reviewer of terrorism legislation are all calling for judicial oversight and clearer safeguards,” said James Welch, legal director for Liberty, which helped bring the case. "The High Court has now added its voice, ruling key provisions of Dripa unlawful. Now is the time for the Home Secretary to commit publicly to surveillance conducted with proper respect for privacy, democracy and the rule of law -- not plough on with more of the same."