In George Orwell’s 1984, Winston Smith, a nonconformist working at the Ministry of Truth, commits the worst of thought-crimes against the Big Brother state. He buys a diary and expresses his private thoughts in it. These days, diaries aren’t necessary: we have a web of ‘communications data’ which can reveal who you have spoken to and when, what you have searched on the internet, your use of social media, essentially enough personal data to work out almost everything about you.
This communications data is the subject of last years’ Investigatory Powers Act. The Act, and its previous iterations, became known as the Snoopers’ Charter because of the sweeping powers it gave the Government to store and access everybody’s communications data. In part because of the revelations of Edward Snowden, it soon became apparent that the powers in the act were being used without meaningful restraint or scrutiny for things that would have been unimaginable when it was first passed. Many parts of Government could access intimate data without any kind of authorisation or sufficient justification, and citizen’s whose data was accessed were not notified and therefore had no ability to challenge the access or seek redress.
I’m proud to have played a part in mobilising opposition to this within Westminster. In November 2013 Reprieve helped me organise a public meeting with German MP Hans Christian Stroebele, who’d just visited Snowden in Moscow, to talk about the broader implications of the revelations, including the ‘war on terror’. In December, I asked a leading public and telecoms QC Jemima Stratford her view on the adequacy of the legislation. Her advice - which I shared with all MPs – was clear: the existing regime was out of date and had significant gaps, rendering huge swaths of GCHQ’s surveillance work illegal.
In response to these concerns and other legal challenges the Government rushed through ‘emergency’ surveillance legislation just before the summer recess 2014 which rubber stamped everything Snowden had disclosed.
It was against this background that, represented by Liberty, I launched a legal challenge to this new legislation that fails to protect people’s fundamental rights or respect the rule of law. The Government fought the challenge but luckily the UK High Court and then the European Court of Justice agreed with me, that parts of the legislation was illegal and must be changed.
Yesterday, three years after I initially submitted my claim and just a week before it returns once more to the Court of Appeal, the Government finally conceded the principle that amendments to the IPA will be needed. They have agreed to two safeguards that I’ve spent three years fighting for: a new independent body (the Office for Communications Data Authorisations) will be set up to authorise requests to access communications data and a new ‘serious crime’ threshold for use of the data will be introduced. They aren’t perfect – and I won’t stop fighting for the lot – but this marks a significant shift in law and practice.
For many years I’ve been struck by and determined to explore the broadest implications of technological advance on people and society: hacking, fake news, investigatory powers, the future of work. Technology raises huge and difficult questions in each of these areas – questions that Westminster sometimes tends to avoid. The Snoopers’ Charter was an example of that. Advances in technology made things possible but the legislation didn’t ensure what was possible was used appropriately and with adequate safeguards.
I’m glad that the announcement yesterday went some way to addressing that.