Snooping law for a digital age?  Let’s rip up RIPA and start again.

Today, in a long-awaited report – A Question of Trust – the Independent Reviewer of Counter-Terrorism Legislation, Lord Anderson of Ipswich QC echoes JUSTICE’s call to ‘start from scratch’ with a new surveillance law fit for a digital age.

For almost a decade, since its adoption, JUSTICE has urged reform of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 – or RIPA – the UK’s core law on surveillance.    In 2011, we published Freedom from suspicion: Surveillance Reform for a Digital Age.   Legal distinctions and safeguards drawn up for surveillance in an era before smartphones and social media were “badly out of date”.   RIPA – “poorly drafted and hopelessly opaque” – was ripe for repeal.

JUSTICE welcomes David Anderson’s headline conclusion that “It is time for a clean slate”.      As his Executive Summary explains:  “RIPA, obscure since its inception, has been patched up so many times as to make it incomprehensible to all but a tiny band of initiates…This state of affairs is undemocratic, unnecessary and – in the long run intolerable”.

This echoes the 2011 conclusion of JUSTICE:

“RIPA is neither forward-looking nor human rights compliant.  Piecemeal amendments are no longer enough for what is already a piecemeal Act.  Root-and-branch reform of the law on surveillance is needed to provide freedom from unreasonable suspicion, and put in place truly effective safeguards against the abuse of what are necessary powers”.

Surveillance is a necessary activity in the fight against serious crime.  It has saved countless lives.  Unchecked and disproportionate surveillance destroys our privacy and blights our freedoms.

To take a case to court, you need to know you have cause for complaint.   By its nature secret, the capacity for individuals to complain when surveillance goes wrong is inherently limited.   The case for such power to be strictly defined is clear.   Transparency, judicial authorisation and oversight are essential to ensure decisions on surveillance are right before our privacy is endangered.

The Reviewer’s recommendations include safeguards considered crucial by JUSTICE in 2011:

  • Requiring prior judicial authorisation for many surveillance decisions (Recommendations including 22, 42 and others):  We explained “[P]rior judicial authorisation is standard practice in every other European and common law jurisdiction.  It is, therefore, impossible to see why it should not also be standard practice in the UK” (Freedom from suspicion, para 407)
  • Replacing a network of Commissioners responsible for after-the event oversight with a new single, independent and effective judicial body with responsibility for authorisation and oversight (Recommendations 82 – 112; Freedom from suspicion, para 407)
  • Increasing the transparency and effectiveness of the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (Recommendations 99, 113-17, 121-124; Freedom from suspicion, para 407)

No new powers without new safeguards

Previous Government calls for reform have focused on the expansion of data retention and bulk collection of data.   New powers tacked on to the existing faulty framework.

The Independent Reviewer is clear.   No new powers without new safeguards.  No new powers at all without hard evidence that they are necessary.   Data retention powers must comply with EU and human rights law (Recommendations 13-14).   Bulk collection of data is ruled out without a complete overhaul of the law (Recommendations 19-22, 43-44).

New legislation which creates a transparent, workable and lawful framework for surveillance is long past due.  We look forward to working with the Reviewer – and Parliament – on the detail.

 Andrea Coomber, Director, JUSTICE said:

“The Home Secretary wanted an independent view on the surveillance debate and the Independent Reviewer has spoken: no new powers now;   new safeguards for powers there already; and independent judicial oversight. 

We need a new law fit for the digital age, one that protects us all from disproportionately intrusive surveillance and provides appropriate judicial oversight.  David Anderson agrees:  it should look nothing like the last Government’s ‘Snoopers’ Charter’.”