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Government Surveillance

CDT Welcomes Major Independent Report Proposing Overhaul of UK Surveillance Laws

The Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT) welcomed the public release of a highly anticipated report by the United Kingdom’s Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation today.  Following a lengthy consultation process to which CDT contributed expert evidence, the report strikes a firm and credible blow against the ever-expanding surveillance regime of the NSA’s closest partner.  The report calls for a complete overhaul of the UK’s surveillance laws, judicial oversight of the interception of private communications, and greater transparency about the existence and use of surveillance powers.

In legislation adopted in July 2014, Parliament tasked the Independent Reviewer, senior barrister David Anderson, with reviewing the UK’s surveillance powers both in law and in practice.  The resulting report addresses issues ranging from the authorities’ collection of communications content and metadata to encryption and compulsory data retention by providers.  Many of the report’s conclusions are nuanced, but its calls to repeal the “incomprehensible” and “undemocratic” legal framework that does not adequately protect human rights, and to hand the role of authorizing and supervising surveillance to the courts, are clear and repeated.

“For too long, the UK has gotten away with engaging in incredibly vast and intrusive surveillance activities authorized by the very same government department that is responsible for carrying out the surveillance,” Sarah St.Vincent, CDT’s Human Rights and Surveillance Legal Fellow, said.  “It is a broken system that is not capable of protecting privacy rights.”

“We strongly support the report’s call for judicial oversight of interception and for judicial warrants for any collection of communications content within the UK,” St.Vincent added. CDT has previously argued for such measures in a submission to the European Court of Human Rights.  The report explicitly draws on CDT’s work in a number of places, including when discussing the need for improved cross-border law enforcement cooperation through formal and publicly understood channels.

“We don’t agree with all of the report’s conclusions, especially a number of them around the practice of bulk collection of communications records by the government. The Independent Reviewer set out to inform the debate on surveillance issues and spark some vital reassessments of the ways in which surveillance encroaches on fundamental rights, and he has succeeded,” St.Vincent said.  “We urge Parliament to heed to the Reviewer’s call to scrap the current surveillance regime, which is unworkable, and replace it with a system of strong safeguards and clear restrictions on surveillance powers.  While the new, more rights-protecting laws are being drafted and considered, we also urge the Home Secretary to heed the Reviewer’s recommendation to refrain from proposing any new legislation that would expand surveillance powers.”

The ruling Conservative party has announced an intention to propose new and broader surveillance powers—popularly known as the “Snooper’s Charter”—in the fall of 2015.