Britain’s security service MI5 illegally collected and retained the personal data of millions of people, Britain’s most secretive court has ruled in a landmark mass surveillance case.
Human rights organizations Liberty and Privacy International launched a joint lawsuit against MI5 in January 2020 challenging the UK’s surveillance laws – which they say are “not fit for purpose and fail to protect our fundamental privacy rights” – and a A decade of illegal surveillance warrants voided.
Under the Investigatory Powers Act, otherwise known as the Snoopers’ Charter, state agencies such as MI5 are allowed to collect and store a wide range of data on any member of the public.
The Powers of Inquiry TribunalHowever, on 30 January 2023, it ruled that MI5 had breached key legal safeguards by unlawfully retaining and using personal data collected through covert means. Bulk surveillance.
While no information has been released about whose data was mishandled during the case, human rights groups believe that millions of UK citizens could be affected and that this is likely to include the data of many people not suspected of wrongdoing, including lawyers. and journalists.
The tribunal also found that MI5 failed to disclose its improper storage of information – despite being aware it had no legal right to do so – to the Home Office and other oversight bodies, and that subsequent home secretaries failed to investigate the intelligence agency – and Continued signing off surveillance warrants – Even after they get clear indication it is acting illegally.
“Since late 2014, MI5 has had serious failures to comply with its statutory obligations,” the tribunal said in a 50-page judgment. “The retention and handling of information in these circumstances was unlawful … satisfactory safeguards in relation to RRD [retention, review and disposal] was not in place. MI5 acknowledges that it has breached safeguards obligations.”
Megan Goulding, Liberty
The tribunal added that the Home Office did not adequately investigate compliance risks, despite having been reported on a number of occasions since 2016. “In the circumstances, the Secretary of State had no reason to be satisfied that effective protection was applied to warrants where there was no assessment or effective investigation into compliance with the RRD,” it said.
Reacting to the ruling, Liberty lawyer Megan Golding said MI5’s “willful breaking of the law” showed that the powers given to snoopers under the Charter did not work for the public.
“We are pleased that the tribunal found that MI5 was mishandling our data, storing it when they should not have and the Home Secretary granting warrants unlawfully. This ruling confirms what we at Liberty and others have been saying for years — that surveillance protections are not fit for purpose and fail to protect our fundamental privacy rights,” he said.
“For years, MI5 knowingly broke the rules and failed to report, the internal oversight body failed to detect it and the government failed to investigate clear red flags. Instead, the Home Office continued to issue illegal warrants, and MI5 kept information from the authorities that it was mishandling our data.”
The tribunal also found that MI5 breached its duty of candor by failing to report to the court when it unlawfully handled bulk communications data. A separate lawsuit brought by Privacy InternationalMeans the case can be reopened.
Withholding important information calls into question past decisions, said Carolyn Wilson Palo, legal director of Privacy International.
“These are not technical violations. At its highest level, MI5 systematically ignored the law and the Home Office’s failure to do anything green-lit their operations. Nothing good comes from the exercise of unchecked power by government intelligence agencies operating in the shadows. Giving MI5 a free pass is undemocratic and dangerous to our rights,” he said.
“While we are pleased that the investigative powers tribunal recognized serious failings by MI5, we are disappointed that they did not go further to remedy them. What’s important now, though, is that governments recognize that we are entitled to real protections for our privacy and take steps to protect them.”
Carolyn Wilson Palo, Privacy International
Despite its findings, the tribunal did not quash the illegal warrant or destroy all data illegally retained, on the grounds that it would be “too prejudicial to national security”.
It added that it would be “extremely difficult” to conduct a search of individual warrants issued over several years and identify which ones were issued illegally and to what extent: “Such an exercise would not serve any useful purpose, but would be harmful. Impact on MI5’s efficiency.
It added that the root of the MI5 illegality was a failure to have and implement a proper system to review the retention and deletion of data, and not a failure that meant the material should not have been there in the first place.
“This was a failure which meant that a small proportion of the material was retained longer than it should have been. The tribunal said that a warrant to destroy all the products would be disproportionate to the illegality we found.
“This does not diminish the seriousness of that illegality, which should be apparent to all readers of this judgment.”