Skip to main content

The UK’s mass surveillance powers have been ruled illegal

The UK’s mass surveillance powers have been ruled illegal


The government now has to rewrite laws storing citizens’ browsing history, say civil rights campaigners

Share this story

Photo credit should read DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images

The UK may be forced to scale back its digital mass surveillance schemes after a court ruled today that its current powers are unlawful.

The UK’s Court of Appeal said that the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act (DRIPA) did not adequately restrict police officers access to personal information, including citizens’ phone records and web browsing history. According to a report from The Guardian, three appeal court judges ruled said that DRIPA lacked safeguards like an independent overseer, and so was “inconsistent with EU law.”

DRIPA was passed in 2014 as “emergency” legislation, with parliamentary debate restricted to just a single day of discussion. The law paved the way for 2016’s Investigatory Powers Act, which authorized even more intrusive powers, and which Edward Snowden dubbed “the most extreme surveillance in the history of western democracy.”

With DRIPA struck down as unlawful, it’s likely that the government will now have to scale back parts of the Investigatory Powers Act, otherwise known as the Snoopers’ Charter. The Act replaced DRIPA in 2016, and, among other measures, legalizes targeted hacking by the UK security services and requires that ISPs keep a record of all citizens’ web browsing habits for at least a year.


The legal case against DRIPA began in 2014, led by Labour MP (and now deputy leader) Tom Watson, and Conservative MP (and now the government’s Brexit lead), David Davis. Davis has since removed himself from the case, but Watson, in a statement, praised the ruling.

“This legislation was flawed from the start. It was rushed through Parliament just before recess without proper parliamentary scrutiny,” said Watson. “The government must now bring forward changes to the Investigatory Powers Act to ensure that hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom are innocent victims or witnesses to crime, are protected by a system of independent approval for access to communications data.”

Martha Spurrier, director of human rights group Liberty who represented Watson in this case, said: “Yet again a UK court has ruled the government’s extreme mass surveillance regime unlawful. This judgment tells ministers in crystal clear terms that they are breaching the public’s human rights. The latest incarnation of the snoopers’ charter, the Investigatory Powers Act, must be changed.”

Today’s ruling by the Court of Appeal follows a decision by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in December 2016 that the UK’s “general and indiscriminate retention” of communications data was illegal. “The retained data, taken as a whole, is liable to allow very precise conclusions to be drawn concerning the private lives of the persons whose data has been retained,” said the ECJ in its ruling.

Said Spurrier: “No politician is above the law. When will the government stop bartering with judges and start drawing up a surveillance law that upholds our democratic freedoms?”