UK rushes through invasive surveillance laws as intelligence agencies go on trial

Amnesty International and Privacy International have accused the UK government of trying to rush through legislation in an attempt to deflect from a landmark hearing starting Monday, challenging the validity of UK spy agencies’ justification for mass surveillance of British citizens’ social media use. “The UK government is manipulating national laws to ensure it can continue to flout international ones,” said Michael Bochenek, Senior Director for Law and Policy at Amnesty International. “Clearly Number 10 would rather move the goalposts than play by the rules.” Just two working days before the start of the Investigatory Powers Tribunal hearing, UK Home Secretary Theresa May announced that the government is fast-tracking a new bill regulating internet surveillance, the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill. She claimed the draft law will ‘put beyond doubt the application of our laws on interception’. The previous law, the EU Data Retention Directive, was struck down by the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) three months ago, but authorities have waited until the last possible minute to rush through legislation and bypass proper scrutiny of the bill. The draft law will technically comply with the Court of Justice’s instruction not to use the old one, but fails to address the reasons the Court struck down the law in the first place. Monday’s Investigatory Powers Tribunal will be the first time the UK’s intelligence services have to account for their mass surveillance activities in open court. It is part of an ongoing lawsuit brought by rights groups Privacy International, Liberty, Amnesty International and others. It seeks to establish the extent to which the UK government has been monitoring their online activity. “The timing of this legislation could not be more audacious,” said Carly Nyst, Legal Director of Privacy International.“It’s shameful that the government should be pursuing a further expansion of its surveillance state at a time when the already extensive powers of the British security services are being challenged in the courts and in the public domain.” At the hearing the groups will challenge the government’s assertion that it is entitled to indiscriminately intercept web searches or communications between British residents, as long as they are using a service provider based outside the UK. “For the first time, UK intelligence agencies will have to answer for their activities and defend their indefensible policy for mass surveillance,” Michael Bochenek said. “Even as the Tribunal will be hearing submissions, the government is rushing through a new law in an attempt to curtail the much-needed debate on protecting privacy.” One year on from the Edward Snowden revelations, the UK government continues to refuse to confirm or deny whether it is spying on the human rights groups or how it uses the mass surveillance powers it claims to have. But information from other states, notably the USA, strongly implicates the UK. “Make no mistake about it – both the current policy and the new bill give the government carte blanche for massive and disproportionate invasion of privacy,” said Carly Nyst. The new Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill has been introduced with cross-party support, suggesting a series of backroom deals were reached. “It appears that agreements are being carved out behind closed doors, minimising debate in the Commons and adding a sinister character to the government’s actions.” Snowden’s allegations have exposed clear gaps in the UK legal framework, highlighting the rubber-stamping of warrants for blanket surveillance and the lack of a clear process for obtaining information from the USA’s National Security Agency. “Monday’s hearing needs to kick start a full and frank debate about how to better balance security needs with privacy rights,” said Michael Bochenek. “Certainly, the UK needs new and clearer laws on how its intelligence agencies carry out surveillance, but those laws must put at their core the right to freely receive and impart information without interference.”