After Five-Year Legal Battle, Top Judges Rule That The UK's Spying Activities Can Be Challenged In Ordinary Courts

from the if-at-first-you-don't-succeed dept

The digital rights group Privacy International has won a major victory against UK government surveillance after a five-year legal battle. One of the many shocking revelations of Edward Snowden was that the UK security and intelligence services break into computers and mobile phones on a massive scale. Privacy International challenged this “bulk” surveillance at the UK’s Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT), the “judicial body which operates independently of government to provide a right of redress for anyone who believes they have been a victim of unlawful action by a public authority using covert investigative techniques”. In February 2016, the IPT dismissed Privacy International’s challenge, ruling that:

the UK government may use sweeping ‘general warrants’ to engage in computer hacking of thousands or even millions of devices, without any approval from by a judge or reasonable grounds for suspicion. The Government argued that it would be lawful in principle to use a single warrant signed off by a Minister (not a judge) to hack every mobile phone in a UK city — and the IPT agreed with the Government.

In May 2016, Privacy International challenged the IPT’s decision in the UK High Court, which agreed with the UK government’s position that Tribunal decisions were not subject to judicial review. So Privacy International turned to the Court of Appeal, in February 2017. In November 2017, the Court of Appeal dismissed the move, finding in favor of the UK government once more. Undeterred, the digital rights group applied for and was granted permission to appeal to the UK’s Supreme Court, which has now ruled that IPT decisions can indeed be challenged in the courts (pdf). Caroline Wilson Palow, Privacy International’s General Counsel, explains why that’s important:

Today’s judgment is a historic victory for the rule of law. It ensures that the UK intelligence agencies are subject to oversight by the ordinary UK courts. Countries around the world are currently grappling with serious questions regarding what power should reside in each branch of government. Today’s ruling is a welcome precedent for all of those countries, striking a reasonable balance between executive, legislative and judicial power.

The hope is that other countries will take note of the UK Supreme Court ruling, and follow suit by allowing judicial oversight of national surveillance activities. Privacy International intends to take advantage of the new judgment immediately to tackle the UK’s bulk surveillance revealed by Snowden:

Today’s ruling paves the way for Privacy International’s challenge to the UK Government’s use of bulk computer hacking warrants. Our challenge has been delayed for years by the Government’s persistent attempt to protect the IPT’s decisions from scrutiny. We are heartened that our case will now go forward.

As well as a welcome result in itself, Privacy International’s ultimate victory after a string of legal defeats is a useful reminder that persistence and patience are important virtues for activists.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter, Diaspora, or Mastodon.

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Comments on “After Five-Year Legal Battle, Top Judges Rule That The UK's Spying Activities Can Be Challenged In Ordinary Courts”

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13 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

thank goodness for organisations like Privacy International! i have to wonder, though, if an individual had tried to get anywhere down this path, how long it would have taken before they would have stopped the challenge? without the funding Privacy International has, it too would have fallen at the first hurdle. what this also shows, to me, is the way that governments everywhere are disregarding everyone in order to carry out the same practices that those governments have condemned the likes of Russia, China etc for doing. and remember, this sort of thing has only become recognised because of Snowden and the Internet, hence why so much effort is being made to stop ordinary people from being able to use it in it’s full way. no government, or member of the so called ‘1%’ want anyone else to know what the fuckers are up to, while wanting to know what everyone else is up to!!

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: i have to wonder

but organizations like Privacy International are unnecessary, right?

UK and US are modern democracies in which our duly elected officials vigorously protect our citizen rights.
Our noble courts and judges form a reliable backstop protection for any of the rare mistakes made by our government officials.

You seem insufficiently trusting of modern representative democracy.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Because 'fuck your privacy' that's why

the UK government may use sweeping ‘general warrants’ to engage in computer hacking of thousands or even millions of devices, without any approval from by a judge or reasonable grounds for suspicion. The Government argued that it would be lawful in principle to use a single warrant signed off by a Minister (not a judge) to hack every mobile phone in a UK city — and the IPT agreed with the Government.

Because nothing says ‘fuck the peasants’ like the idea that your privacy can be violated en-mass simply because a government agency feels like it.

I’d say at the point that a ‘warrant’ not approved by a judge can be used to engage in mass-hacking is the point that they are no longer a check against abuse by the government, but have been turned into nothing more than cover for abuse. A ‘warrant’ like that isn’t limiting what they can do, it’s for all intents and purposes a ‘get out of consequences’-free card for anything that they care to do.

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