EU court limits UK's draconian Investigatory Powers Act

(Image Credit: iStockPhoto/BrianAJackson)

Many countries have attempted to slip past invasive surveillance laws, but the European Court of Justice has stepped in to limit what could have been the most extreme abuse of individual privacy yet from a western government. 

Under the guise of protecting citizens from terrorism, Prime Minister Theresa May championed the Investigatory Powers Act while serving as Home Secretary. The key argument for passing the legislation was the increasingly digital and encrypted means through which terrorists coordinate and spread propaganda is making it more difficult for authorities to highlight suspect individuals and potential cells. 

Few will dispute the need for surveillance measures where appropriate oversight is used and warrants issued, but the Investigatory Powers Act went beyond this with a wide range of organisations provided with indiscriminate powers to collect emails, text messages, and other data including browsing histories. 

Judges ruled authorities should not be allowed to authorise their own access to data, and independent courts or bodies should approve or deny requests. 

"The retained data, taken as a whole, is liable to allow very precise conclusions to be drawn concerning the private lives of the persons whose data has been retained," the court wrote in a release. "The fact that the data is retained without the users of electronic communications services being informed of the fact is likely to cause the persons concerned to feel that their private lives are the subject of constant surveillance." 

Some of the organisations with access to citizens' data – such as the Gambling Commission and Food Standards Agency – have a questionable need for such information. This led to an understandable concern from privacy activists that personal data would be used for more than just protecting the public. 

“Given the quantity of retained data, the sensitivity of that data and the risk of unlawful access to it, the national legislation must make provision for that data to be retained within the EU and for the irreversible destruction of the data at the end of the retention period,” the court wrote. 

When revelations about the extent of the NSA's mass surveillance measures were released, documents came to light which highlighted the concerns of the organisation's intelligence experts about the amount of data collected on citizens hindering efforts through information overload. William Binney, a former NSA official, said the problem extends across other law enforcement and federal agencies, such as the FBI, the CIA, and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). 

The case against the Investigatory Powers Act was submitted to EU courts by the now-Brexit secretary David Davis, which is bound to cause either amusement or tension in some areas of government.

While the Home Office is appealing the decision, if the ruling stands it may continue after the UK's departure from the EU depending on the results of negotiations surrounding data agreements with the bloc. The UK's leading intelligence services are sure to be a playing card in the negotiations, and the government will be looking to ensure they remain as robust as possible. 

Do you agree with the EU court's ruling on the surveillance bill? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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