The now famous revelations by US whistleblower Edward Snowden focused on US government programmes under which vast amounts of data about individuals’ internet usage and communications were said to have been gathered. The allegations extended beyond the US: the UK government and security agencies, for example, were also said to be involved in such activity.
Unsurprisingly, concerns were raised about the privacy implications of such activity – in particular, whether it complied with individuals’ rights under the European Convention on Human Rights (privacy under Article 8; freedom of expression under Article 10).
The litigation before the Investigatory Powers Tribunal
Litigation was commenced in the UK by Privacy International, Liberty, Amnesty International and others. The cases were heard by a five-member panel of the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (presided over by Mr Justice Burton) in July of this year. The IPT gave judgment ( UKIPTrib 13_77-H) today.
In a nutshell, it found that the particular information-gathering activities it considered – carried out in particular by GCHQ and the Security Service – are lawful.
Note the tense: they are lawful. The IPT has not determined whether or not they were lawful in the past. The key difference is this: an essential element of lawfulness is whether the applicable legal regime under which such activity is conducted is sufficiently accessible (i.e. is it available and understandable to people?). That turns in part on what the public is told about how the regime operates. During the course of this litigation, the public has been given (by means of the IPT’s open judgment) considerably more detail in this regard. This, says the IPT, certainly makes the regime lawful on a prospective basis. The IPT has not determined whether, prior to these supplementary explanations, the ‘in accordance with the law’ requirement was satisfied.
With its forward-looking, self-referential approach, this judgment is unusual. It is also unusual in that it proceeded to test the legality of the regimes largely by references to assumed rather than established facts about the Prism and Tempora activities. This is because not much about those activities has been publicly confirmed, due to the ‘neither confirm nor deny’ principle which is intrinsic to intelligence and security activity.
The first issue assessed by reference to assumed facts was called the “Prism” issue: this was about the collection/interception by US authorities of data about individuals’ internet communications and the assumed sharing of such data with UK authorities, who could then retain and use it. Would this arrangement be lawful under Article 8(2) ECHR? In particular, was it “in accordance with the law”, which in essence means did it have a basis in law and was it sufficiently accessible and foreseeable to the potentially affected individuals? (These are the so-called Weber requirements, from Weber and Saravia v Germany  46 EHRR SE5).
When it comes to intelligence, accessibility and foreseeability are difficult to achieve without giving the game away to a self-defeating extent. The IPT recognised that the Weber principles need tweaking in this context. The following ‘nearly-Weber’ principles were applied as the decisive tests for ‘in accordance with the law’ in this context:
“(i) there must not be an unfettered discretion for executive action. There must be controls on the arbitrariness of that action.
(ii) the nature of the rules must be clear and the ambit of them must be in the public domain so far as possible, an “adequate indication” given (Malone v UK  7 EHRR 14 at paragraph 67), so that the existence of interference with privacy may in general terms be foreseeable.”
Those tests will be met if:
“(i) Appropriate rules or arrangements exist and are publicly known and confirmed to exist, with their content sufficiently signposted, such as to give an adequate indication of it.
(ii) They are subject to proper oversight.”
On the Prism issue, the IPT found that those tests are met. The basis in law comes from the Security Service Act 1989, Intelligence Services Act 1994 and the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008. Additionally, the Data Protection Act 1998 DPA, the Official Secrets Act 1989 and the Human Rights Act 1998 restrain the use of data of the sort at issue here. Taken together, there are sufficient and specific statutory limits on the information that each of the Intelligence Services can obtain, and on the information that each can disclose.
In practical terms, there are adequate arrangements in place to safeguard against arbitrary of unfettered use of individuals’ data. These included the “arrangements below the waterline” (i.e. which are not publicly explained) which the Tribunal was asked to – and did – take into account.
Oversight of this regime comes through Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee and the Interception of Communications Commissioner.
Further, these arrangements are “sufficiently signposted by virtue of the statutory framework … and the statements of the ISC and the Commissioner… and as now, after the two closed hearings that we have held, publicly disclosed by the Respondents and recorded in this judgment”.
Thus, in part thanks to closed evidence of the “below the waterline” arrangements and open disclosure of more detail about those arrangements, the Prism programme (on the assumed facts before the IPT) is lawful, i.e. it is a justified intrusion into Article 8 ECHR rights.
The alleged Tempora interception operation
Unlike the Prism programme, the second matter scrutinised by the IPT – the alleged Tempora programme – involved the interception of communications by UK authorities. Here, in contrast to Prism (where the interception is done by someone else), the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 is pivotal.
This works on a system of warrants for interception. The warrants are issued under section 8 of RIPA (supplemented by sections 15 and 16) by the Secretary of State, rather than by a member of the judiciary. The regime is governed by the Interception of Communications Code of Practice.
The issue for the IPT was: is this warrant system (specifically, the section 8(4) provision for ‘certified’ warrants) in accordance with the law, for ECHR purposes?
This has previously been considered by the IPT in the British Irish Rights Watch case in 2004. Its answer was that the regime was in accordance with the law. The IPT in the present cases re-examined the issue and took the same view. It rejected a number of criticisms of the certified warrant regime, including:
The absence of a tightly focused, ‘targeting’ approach at the initial stages of information-gathering is acceptable and inevitable.
There is no call “for search words to be included in an application for a warrant or in the warrant itself. It seems to us that this would unnecessarily undermine and limit the operation of the warrant and be in any event entirely unrealistic”.
There is also “no basis for objection by virtue of the absence for judicial pre-authorisation of a warrant. The United Kingdom system is for the approval by the highest level of government, namely by the Secretary of State”.
Further, “it is not necessary that the precise details of all the safeguards should be published, or contained in legislation, delegated or otherwise”.
The overall assessment was very similar as for Prism: in light of the statutory regime, the oversight mechanisms, the open and closed evidence of the arrangements (above and below the “waterline”) and additional disclosures by the Respondents, the regime for gathering, retaining and using intercepted data was in accordance with the law – both as to Article 8 and Article 10 ECHR.
This judgment is good news for the UK Government and the security bodies, who will no doubt welcome the IPT’s sympathetic approach to the practical exigencies of effective intelligence operations in the digital age. These paragraphs encapsulate the complaints and the IPT’s views:
“158. Technology in the surveillance field appears to be advancing at break-neck speed. This has given rise to submissions that the UK legislation has failed to keep abreast of the consequences of these advances, and is ill fitted to do so; and that in any event Parliament has failed to provide safeguards adequate to meet these developments. All this inevitably creates considerable tension between the competing interests, and the ‘Snowden revelations’ in particular have led to the impression voiced in some quarters that the law in some way permits the Intelligence Services carte blanche to do what they will. We are satisfied that this is not the case.
159. We can be satisfied that, as addressed and disclosed in this judgment, in this sensitive field of national security, in relation to the areas addressed in this case, the law gives individuals an adequate indication as to the circumstances in which and the conditions upon which the Intelligence Services are entitled to resort to interception, or to make use of intercept.”
11KBW’s Ben Hooper and Julian Milford appeared for the Respondents.
Robin Hopkins @hopkinsrobin