Britain’s ‘Unlawful’ Spying Powers Attacked by Top EU Court

  • Judges say law can’t be justified within a democratic society
  • Court challenge originally made by current Brexit secretary

The European Union’s top court ruled against Britain in its first major judgment of the Brexit era, saying U.K. measures forcing telecommunications companies to keep hold of customer data for a year violate the bloc’s laws.

Such legislation “exceeds the limits of what is strictly necessary and cannot be considered to be justified within a democratic society," judges at the EU Court of Justice said in their decision Wednesday.

The opposition Labour Party’s deputy leader Tom Watson, with support from human-rights campaigners, asked the Luxembourg court to review the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act amid doubts over its compliance with European human-rights law.

The challenge was originally brought in the U.K. by Watson and Conservative Party lawmaker David Davis and was referred to the EU court by appeals-court judges. Davis was appointed Brexit secretary following this year’s referendum to leave the bloc. 

“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,” according to Wednesday’s ruling.

The suit will now come back to the U.K. Court of Appeal for a final ruling, Britain’s Home Office said. "The government will be putting forward robust arguments to the Court of Appeal about the strength of our existing regime for communications data retention and access," it said. 

A special U.K. tribunal ruled in October that spy agencies’ bulk interception of individuals’ private communications didn’t have the proper oversight or comply with human rights law until as late as November 2015.

Last month, the Investigatory Powers Bill, which gives U.K. authorities sweeping powers to retain, hack and intercept the communications of all British citizens, was passed by Parliament and given royal assent.

"No one would consent to giving the police or the government the power to arbitrarily seize our phone records or emails to use as they see fit. It’s for judges, not ministers, to oversee these powers," Watson said in a statement.

’Unlawful’

The world’s leading tech companies, including Apple Inc.’s Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook, warned of "dire consequences" if the bill passed while Facebook Inc., Alphabet Inc.’s Google, Microsoft Corp., Twitter Inc. and Yahoo! Inc. said the law would undermine customers’ faith in their products and brands. 

Human-rights advocacy group Liberty said that parts of the new bill are now unlawful and called on the government to change it. 

The ruling upholds the rights of ordinary British people not to have their personal lives spied on without good reason," Martha Spurrier, Liberty’s director, said. “This is the first serious post-referendum test for our government’s commitment to protecting human rights and the rule of law. The U.K. may have voted to leave the EU -- but we didn’t vote to abandon our rights and freedoms.”

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