UK: Investigatory Powers Bill – Rights Protections Illusory

UK: Investigatory Powers Bill – Rights Protections Illusory - Digital

A seagull flies over a CCTV camera patrolling the sea front in Brighton. In the UK the use of Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) for surveillance and crime control has grown to unprecedented levels making the UK the most 'watched' nation on earth. Between 150 and 300 million pounds per year is now spent on a surveillance industry involving an estimated 300,000 cameras.

Today, on 4 November 2015, UK Home Secretary Theresa May, published the Investigatory Powers Bill. The Bill reaches nearly 300 pages, complete with a volume of explanatory notes, factsheets, and ‘overarching documents’.

‘The UK Government has today presented an immensely complex Bill, laying out increased state surveillance powers. We are deeply concerned that the Bill will not bring the clarity, transparency and oversight which we are sorely lacking in this area,” said Thomas Hughes, Executive Director of ARTICLE 19.

The Bill provides for access to the phone and internet records of journalists with little legal protection, other than a summary review by a Judicial Commissioner, who will make a decision in secret, and without notifying the affected journalist. The Commissioner is only required to decide whether the request is based on reasonable grounds, not whether it affects freedom of expression or the public interest in the information.

This poses a threat to the confidential relationship between journalists and their sources. Protection of journalistic sources is one of the basic conditions for freedom of the media, and is crucial to investigative journalism, much of which is the public interest. Under current law, many UK journalists have had their phone records accessed when officials wanted to identify their sources. This looks unlikely to change.

“Despite the Government’s promises, the Investigatory Powers Bill fails to adequately protect journalists’ sources. Secret surveillance of journalists’ sources will continue virtually unabated with little consideration for freedom of expression, meaningful judicial authorisation, or the ability to contest until it is too late,” said Hughes.

Furthermore, whistleblowers who reveal overreaching surveillance face summary conviction with no possibility of a public interest defense.

The Bill raises several other concerns, from bulk interception warrants to state-sanctioned hacking into people’s computers, as well as a requirement for internet and phone companies to store records users’ internet activities. While judicial approval features in the Bill, it is limited to UK judicial review standards.

“The Bill poses threats to freedom of expression and the right to privacy: it is crucial that Parliament thoroughly scrutinises it, with consultation with civil society and experts,” Hughes added.

ARTICLE 19 will be working with our partners in the Don’t Spy on Us Coalition to properly analyse and comment on the Bill. This is a defining moment for British democratic rights. We must seize this opportunity for the UK to become a world leader in the protection of rights online.