UK’s Mass Digital Surveillance Powers Ruled Illegal - What Does It Mean For The Future Of Privacy?

UK Government have been forced to change their controversial mass digital surveillance regime, as Appeal court judges have ruled the snooper’s charter unlawful.

As the people of Britain breathe a collective sigh of relief over the privacy of their digital footprint, allow me to explain what happened and how this affects the future…

Today, the country’s Court of Appeal decided that the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act lacked appropriate safeguards to prevent misuse (such as an independent overseer) and didn’t adequately limit the police’s access to personal information.

Basically, police were able to authorise their own access to data, so long as they could frame it as important for fighting crime – rather than doing the obvious thing and requesting it through the courts of a similar supervisory body.

The court backed a challenge made about this by Labour deputy leader Tom Watson – represented by human rights organisation Liberty – about the previous iteration of the current snooper’s charter. 

Judges deemed it “inconsistent with EU law,” a conclusion that the EU made just a month after UK Government passed the law. So, all good, right?

Well… Many news outlets and tech publications have been quick to jump on this story and put forward this over-dramatised picture of social justice, as a court joins the people in waving a two-finger salute to the establishment and their Orwellian overreach.

But there are two key takeaways that they are not necessarily telling you, to streamline their narrative and encourage a better vocal response on social media…

The Investigatory Powers Act is still a thing – this is a hollow victory

Watson’s challenge was against the original form of DRIPA, not the new version of the Investigatory Powers Act. This essentially takes the metaphorical venom out the sting of this decision – just glorified rhetoric.

The original challenge was filed in 2014, with the high court ruling in favour of Watson in 2015. Following this the Government appealed the charge, leading to the Court of Appeals referring the case to the European Court of Justice, who then also backed the High Court’s initial ruling in 2016, and it took until 8th December 2017 to get the definitive hearing.

Simply put, the legal process can be ridiculous at times and the walls put in the way of this decision led to a nothing burger of impact… Or so you would think.

This may be a sign of better things to come

While it is true that this victory is a hollow one, this just goes to show that it’s not just a “people vs the establishment” problem and that (most importantly) no politician is above the law.

Liberty is currently fighting against the updated Investigatory Powers Act in court, using the over £50,000 raised through crowdfunding. Their argument is simple – you’ve said one is unlawful, so surely these increased surveillance powers, which go much further than the one you said is illegal, should be stopped too.

And based on current trends, Liberty could be on track to winning… Granted, the government will fight hard – appealing the decision and going up to various levels of court. But the optics will be bad for them, as they ferociously pursue turning Great Britain into one of the world’s most advanced surveillance states.

So, that’s where we are at the moment… With the repeal of net neutrality and this decision, 2018 could be quite the transformative year for the internet. But hopefully, this lesson is learned by the government to not treat every single citizen like a criminal, and they scrap the damn thing.