'Too easy’ to spy: Controversial snooping bill ruled illegal by UK High Court

©  Bobby Yip
Britain’s High Court has ruled that emergency surveillance legislation pushed through parliament in 2014, which gave police and security services unprecedented access to citizens’ private data, is illegal.

The High Court ruled against the former Lib Dem-Conservative coalition’s Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act (Dripa), and ordered it to pass new legislation by the end of March 2015.

Two MPs had brought a legal challenge against the government, saying the legislation was a violation of European human rights law. The MPs’ legal challenge, which was supported by human rights group Liberty, argued that the legislation allowed police and security services to monitor citizens without proper safeguards.

High Court judges found that the Act, which was fast-tracked through Parliament last July, is “inconsistent with EU law.” They argued it breaches Articles 7 and 8 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.

Lord Justice Bean and Mr. Justice Collins declared that section one of Dripa “does not lay down clear and precise rules providing for access to and use of communications data,” and therefore should be scrapped.

The government says it disagrees with the court’s ruling and intends to seek an appeal.

Dripa was forced through Parliament last July despite controversy over the legislation's implications for citizens’ privacy rights.

The Act requires phone and internet companies to retain their customers’ data for up to a year, while granting security services unprecedented access to it.

The legislation was challenged by Labour MP Tom Watson and Conservative MP David Davis, both of whom welcome the High Court’s ruling.

Speaking after the ruling, Watson said it’s important to hold the government to account.

It’s a year to the day since Dripa received royal assent. Good governance is about allowing the legislature the room to make law. In this case it didn’t happen. Good opposition is about holding governments to account and that didn’t happen either,” he said. 

So we find ourselves in a position where the courts have had to say to parliament go back and start again. In his final speech in parliament on this bill last year, David Davis warned that this legislation would be junk in a year and it is.

Former Foreign Office security minister David Davis said the ruling confirmed that it is currently “too easy” for the authorities to spy on people.

What this means is that access by the police and other agencies to everyone’s data is too easy. It can range from a politician giving permission [to intercept communications] to anyone in the next office. That’s against the law and it’s not either in the interests of privacy or security,” he said.

The government gave parliament one day to pass this legislation. This court has given the government nine months to sort it out. It’s the right judgment. It’s a measured judgment. It gives no risk to security because the government has plenty of time to sort it out.”

Davis concluded the High Court's ruling reflects an “emerging consensus” that formal “judicial approval [of intercepting communications] is needed.”

But the government is determined to appeal the ruling. Speaking on Friday, Security Minister John Hayes slammed the High Court’s judgement.

We disagree absolutely with this judgment and will seek an appeal,” he said.

The effect of this judgment would be that, in certain cases, communications data that could potentially save lives would only be available to the police and other law enforcement if a communications company had decided to retain it for commercial reasons. We believe that is wrong.”