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.