A landmark ruling finds the UK government broke the law for years, but it’s going to get away with it

Tracy Keeling

In a landmark ruling, the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) has found that the UK government broke the law for 17 years. But it is going to get off scot-free. There can be no clearer indication that the UK has a two-tiered justice system. And it’s one where those who make the rules are free to break them, or change them to avoid punishment.

Tearing up our rights, in secret

The IPT’s findings were the result of a case brought against the UK government by Privacy International. The human rights charity initiated the case to challenge the government’s collection of its citizens’ personal information. Specifically, it wanted the court to test the legality of the government’s use of Bulk Personal Datasets (BPD) and Bulk Communications Data (BCD).

BPDs are electronic records of our lives, such as medical and financial records, where we travel, what we watch, and how we communicate. While BCD details the who, what, where and when of our communications.

The IPT found that the UK government had broken its own laws in its handling of the data. Furthermore, it ruled that on both counts the UK’s security services had failed to comply with Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR). Article 8 protects our right to privacy. Therefore, the government has infringed on one of its citizens’ fundamental human rights.

A system ripe for abuse

Security staff were warned about abuse of the surveillance system, the IPT ruling also revealed. An internal message was sent to those with access. And it cautioned them not to search for information “about other members of staff, neighbours, friends, acquaintances, family members and public figures”.

But the ruling shows the databases were “very worryingly” used by staff to check on family members for “personal reasons“.

Privacy International has called for the illegally snatched data to be deleted. Millie Graham Wood, Legal Officer at Privacy International, said:

The public and parliament deserve an explanation as to why everyone’s data was collected for over a decade without oversight in place and confirmation that unlawfully obtained personal data will be destroyed.

The UK moved the goalposts

The UK government has responded to the ruling, saying:

The powers available to the security and intelligence agencies play a vital role in protecting the UK and its citizens. We are therefore pleased the tribunal has confirmed the current lawfulness of the existing bulk communications data and bulk personal dataset regimes.

The government’s response seems at odds with the IPT’s findings. Yet it’s not. Privacy International brought its case against the government in June 2015, following whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations. But prior to the IPT actually hearing the case, the government moved the goalposts. It adapted the spying programme to make it more transparent in November of that year. This change brought it in line with the law without changing the actual operations.

Seemingly, because of that change, the government will not be punished for the 17 years it ran the programme illegally. And the upcoming Investigatory Powers (IP) bill, or Snoopers Charter, will put the practices on a firm legal footing.

The elephant in the room

It is baffling, though, how the government can square its mass surveillance capabilities with the ECHR. Simply ensuring it is more transparent about violating its citizens’ right to privacy doesn’t negate that breach. While the UK remains a party to the ECHR, it must abide by its principles.

The UK government is also currently under investigation by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) for its surveillance practices. This court enforces the ECHR. And Snowden’s leaks have provided the evidence for the case – the first of its kind.

There will be a judgement forthcoming from this court on the UK government’s spying choices. So the UK government may have escaped punishment at the hands of the IPT. But it is highly possible that the ECtHR will take a less sympathetic view of its actions.

Get Involved!

– Read more Canary articles on surveillance and the IP bill.

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Featured image via Pittaya/Flickr

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