Government Surveillance

The intelligence and law enforcement agencies need surveillance powers to tackle serious crime and terrorism. However, their surveillance should be targeted at those suspected at those suspected of wrongdoing and not the entire populations. Indiscriminate mass surveillance violates our rights to privacy and free speech, and undermines a key tenet of our judicial system, that we are innocent until proven guilty.

The Snowden revelations
On June 5, 2013, the UK newspaper the Guardian, along with several other major newspapers worldwide, began publishing a series of revelations of spying by the US National Security Agency and its equivalents in other countries, including the UK's GCHQ. The basis for all these stories was a cache of as many as 200,000 classified documents copied from NSA files by a young computer scientist and contractor, Edward Snowden.

The documents showed that the NSA has severely compromised security systems worldwide by undermining and breaking encryption standards as well as using taps and back doors to monitor and collect global Internet traffic. The documents also revealed that GCHQ taps fibre optic cables and has intercepted foreign politicians' communications at G20 summits. All of this has taken place without oversight or accountability, and it is clear from subsequent events that neither Congress nor Parliament was informed. In the UK, loopholes in the law had allowed the creation of vast surveillance programmes.

In the US and many other countries, the Snowden revelations led to public debate on the appropriate limits of surveillance; in December 2013 the US published a highly critical government-commissioned report into the NSA's activities including 46 recommendations for reining in the NSA. In the UK, there was no such debate. However, in spring 2015, three independent inquiries called for the urgent reform of the UK’s surveillance laws.

Investigatory Powers Act 2016
In 2016, the UK Government voted for the most extreme surveillance law to be passed in a democracy. The Investigatory Powers Act (IP Act) was drafted in response to the Snowden revelations, which showed that the UK’s intelligence agencies had exploited loopholes in the law to build mass surveillance programmes. Three separate inquiries called for the reform of the UK’s surveillance laws. However, rather than restraining mass surveillance powers, the IP Act put the capabilities revealed by Snowden into law and even extended surveillance further. It means that Internet Service Providers can be forced to record the browsing history and app use of their customers.

ORG worked with the Don’t Spy on Us coalition to challenge the IP Act as it progressed through parliament. We are continuing to challenge the extreme measures in this law.

Legal challenges to mass surveillance
In December 2016, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) issued a judgment that has implications for the IP Act and mass surveillance in the UK. The judgment related to a case brought by Labour MP Tom Watson and the human rights group Liberty about a now defunct piece of legislation, the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act (DRIPA). ORG intervened in the case, arguing that DRIPA’s provisions for blanket data retention contravened EU law and a previous CJEU ruling on the Data Retention Directive. The Uk appeal court referred the case to the CJEU who ruled that:

  • Blanket data retention is not permissible 

  • Access to data must be authorised by an independent body

  • Only data belonging to people who are suspected of serious crimes can be accessed

  • Individuals need to be notified if their data is accessed.

ORG is monitoring the Government's response to this ruling and will challenge it if it fails to act.

What you can do

  • Protect your online privacy using the available tools (EPIC)
  • Join ORG to help fund future legal challenges to extreme surveillance laws like the Investigatory Powers Act.