May’s government is also on trial this week, and it’s one you really should be watching

Tracy Keeling

Whilst everyone has been glued to the legal challenge to Jeremy Corbyn’s place on the leadership ballot, another incredibly important trial has been taking place. On 26 July a four day hearing began against the government for potentially illegal snooping on the population since, ironically, 1984.

And it’s revealing “the most potent instrument of repression” that our country has ever faced.

The case against Theresa May’s government was initiated by Privacy International over a year ago. The charity, which campaigns on privacy issues around the world, has legally challenged:

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whether the acquisition, use, retention, disclosure, storage and deletion of Bulk Personal Datasets [by the UK government] is in accordance with the law and necessary and proportionate. Bulk Personal Datasets were first avowed on 12 March 2015 in the intelligence and security committee report.

Bulk Personal Datasets are collections of information that are recorded about our activities every day. As privacy advocate Sam Smith described at the 2016 Scrambling for Safety event:

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They’re the databases that are everywhere in modern life. They’re recording the number plates that go past your window. They’re the record of what you’ve watched on netflix, and the interaction data that says you were chilling at the time. They are the administrative trivia of where you were late to work, or the banking records of what you donated to church, and the implementation details of how you pay your taxes.

Privacy International is also challenging the government’s use of Bulk Communications Data, which is the electronic information that we personally generate through our communications, and internet activity.

Due to the case being brought against the UK government last year, ample evidence has since been submitted. And according to The Inquirer so far the evidence shows that, under sections of the Telecommunications Act 1984 and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, the UK’s security services have been collecting data on every citizen in the country, including that about where you are, who you call, who calls you, how long you speak for, and where you are when you chat.

Privacy International is also arguing that the government accessed internet records to gather our browsing history and private messaging details, among other things.

This may come as no surprise. Following the spying revelations of Edward Snowden in 2013, which included vast detail about the UK’s security service GCHQ and the data it harvests, it is commonly acknowledged that such practices are in place.

In fact, that is the reason why prime minister May, in her previous role as home secretary, introduced the Investigatory Powers (IP) bill – currently making its way through parliament – to legitimise these already established procedures.

But, the very introduction of the IP bill this late in the game begs the question that Privacy International posed a year ago: were these powers legal and appropriate when they were carried out?

Dr Julian Huppert, the former Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge, has his doubts. He spoke to The Inquirer about Section 94 of Telecommunications Act 1984, the legislation under which much of the surveillance was carried out:

It’s such powerful legislation that it has to be declared to Parliament every time it is used, unless it’s in the interests of national security or relations with another country, meaning that, while Parliament has never been informed of its use until recently, Section 94 was broadly used to justify an increasing range of intrusive and wide-ranging surveillance activity by the security services.

As Hubbert notes, parliament has rarely been consulted of the use of the legislation, even though “it has to be declared to parliament” when utilised. Yet, it has been used widely to date to surveil the entire population. Privacy International is arguing that the “interests of national security or relations with another country” clause has essentially been used to justify spying on everyone.

Eric King, Privacy International’s deputy director, commented:

Secretly ordering companies to hand over their records in bulk, to be data-mined at will, without independent sign off or oversight, is a loophole in the law the size of a double-decker bus.

That the practice started, and continues without a legal framework in place, smacks of an agency who sees itself as above the law.

The “legal framework” that King notes has been lacking will now be established through the intrusive IP bill. But the trial will decide whether the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) is prepared to take action against the government for its “above the law” approach to date.

That the evidence presented so far has included the discovery of secret meetings between judges of the regulatory body and the security services, where M15 persuaded the IPT to overlook part of its practice, does not bode well.

But, those in charge must adhere to the checks and balances in place in our society, if they expect the wider public to do the same. Especially when they were the ones who put that very system in place.

 

Get involved!

Check in with Privacy International on Twitter, to learn about developments in the case.

Take action with the Don’t Spy on Us campaign.

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Image via Surrey County Council/Flickr

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