Britain’s controversial ‘snooper’s charter’ has been delivered a blow from the EU with its highest court ruling that the government’s “indiscriminate retention” of emails is illegal.
The ruling could trigger challenges against the UK’s new Investigatory Powers Act, passed into law in November, which allows for the sweeping collection and storage of people’s emails, text messages and internet data.
According to a long-awaited decision by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in Luxembourg, only targeted interception of traffic and location data in order to combat serious crime is justified.
The finding came in response to a legal challenge initially brought by the Brexit secretary, David Davis, before he got the role of helping Britain leave the bloc, and Tom Watson, Labour’s deputy leader.
They are concerned over the legality of cyber-spies at GCHQ bulk intercepting call records and online messages.
“This ruling shows it is counter-productive to push new laws through parliament without proper scrutiny,” Watson told the Independent.
“At a time when we face a real and ever-present terrorist threat, the security forces may require access to personal information none of us would normally hand over.
“That’s why it’s absolutely vital that proper safeguards are put in place to ensure this power is now abused, as it has been in the recent past.
“Most of us can accept that our privacy may occasionally be compromised in the interests of keeping us safe, but no one would consent to giving the police or the government the power to arbitrarily seize our phone records or emails as they see fit.
“It’s for judges, not ministers, to oversee these powers. I’m pleased the court has upheld the earlier decision of the UK courts,” Watson told the paper.
Davis and Watson had already won a high court victory on the issue, but the government appealed and the case was referred to the ECJ.
Martha Spurrier, the director of Liberty, which supports the MPs in bringing the case, said the judgment “upholds the rights of ordinary British people not to have their personal lives spied on without good reason or an independent warrant,” the Independent reported.
“The government must now make urgent changes to the Investigatory Powers Act to comply with this.
“This is the first serious post-referendum test for our government’s commitment to protecting human rights and the rule of law.
“The UK may have voted to leave the EU – but we didn’t vote to abandon our rights and freedoms.”
The government says it will appeal against the decision. A Home Office spokesperson said, “We are disappointed with the judgment from the European Court of Justice and will be considering its potential implications.
“It will now be for the Court of Appeal to determine the case. The government will be putting forward robust arguments to the Court of Appeal about the strength of our existing regime for communications data retention and access,” the spokesperson said as quoted by the Independent.
“Given the importance of communications data to preventing and detecting crime, we will ensure plans are put in place so that the police and other public authorities can continue to acquire such data in a way that is consistent with EU law and our obligation to protect the public.”