State agencies have always spied on criminals and foreign agents. But in June 2013, Edward Snowden – a former contractor at the US National Security Agency – blew the whistle on the huge scale of Government spying on every one of us.
He revealed that GCHQ, the UK's eavesdropping agency, was intercepting and processing billions of communications every day and sharing the information with the US.
This included recordings of our phone calls, the content of our private messages, entries on social media sites and our internet histories.
They were doing all this without the public’s knowledge or consultation. Even Parliament had been kept totally in the dark.
The leaks also showed US authorities had similarly breathtaking and direct access to global communications via the world’s biggest internet companies – and that the UK also accessed that data.
Nowadays our phones, emails and website visits reveal a far more detailed picture of our lives than any diary entry ever could. What does your search history say about you? Does it reveal your political views? Social networks? Religious ideas? Medical concerns? Sexual interests?
This level of intrusion has no place in a democratic society, where we all have the right to protest, speak freely and to a fair trial – and our free press holds the Government to account. If those in power can watch our every move, those rights are undermined.
Snowden hoped that by exposing this unlawful and undemocratic mass surveillance, the resulting public outcry would stop it.
But in the UK, our Government responded not just by legalising those eye-watering powers – but by expanding them.
Investigatory Powers Act
In 2016, Parliament passed the most intrusive surveillance law of any democracy in history.
It passed in an atmosphere of shambolic parliamentary opposition – even though the Government failed to show it was necessary.
Widely known as the Snoopers’ Charter, the Act:
- Lets authorities hack into thousands of our devices at once, with no need to suspect us of any crime. This means they can access the contents, as well as turn devices on and off, switch on microphones and cameras, track our typing and more.
- Forces our internet providers to collect and store a year’s worth of our browsing histories, and make them accessible to dozens of public bodies.
- Allows authorities to collect our communications en masse.
- Allows the collection and analysis of huge banks of data on all of us – everything from credit references to health records.
Even the most confidential communications – like those between journalists and sources or doctors and patients – receive almost no protection.
But the testimony of whistleblowers and first-hand evidence increasingly tells us mass surveillance actually makes it harder for security and law enforcement agencies to do their jobs effectively.
And, in an age when hacking attacks are bringing businesses and governments to their knees, the collection and storage of this sensitive data puts all of us at serious risk from criminals and foreign regimes.
In short, the Government is actually compromising our security.
The People vs the Snoopers’ Charter
In December 2016, Liberty won a landmark legal victory against the previous surveillance law.
The EU Court of Justice ruled the Government was breaking the law by indiscriminately collecting the nation's internet activity and phone records and letting hundreds of public bodies grant themselves access with no suspicion of serious crime and no independent sign-off.
The judges’ decision effectively rendered the Investigatory Powers Act – which re-legislated for these same powers and introduced even more intrusive ones – unlawful.
In January, we launched a legal challenge – crowdfunded by nearly 2,000 people – to the mass surveillance powers in the Snoopers’ Charter.
Liberty wants to see a proportionate, targeted surveillance system that keeps us safe and respects our rights.
If we win our case, the Government will be forced to take a more democratic approach.