‘Plebgate’ and the protection of journalistic sources

December 17th, 2015 by Robin Hopkins

It has been a mixed day for the media’s entanglements with the judiciary. Chris Knight posted earlier today about the unhappy outcome for Mirror Group Newspapers before the Court of Appeal in the Gulati privacy damages litigation arising from phone-hacking.

News Group Newspapers, however – together with Sun journalist claims Tom Newton Dunn, Anthony France and Craig Woodehouse – had a happier outcome in another case about telephone privacy, though this time with the media as victim rather than perpetrator of the interference.

Judgment IPT/14/176/H saw the claimants succeed in part in their claim against the Metropolitan Police in the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (‘IPT’). Read more »


Above and below the waterline: IPT finds that Prism and Tempora are lawful

December 5th, 2014 by Robin Hopkins

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 ([2014] 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 [2008] 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 [1985] 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


GCHQ’s internet surveillance – privacy and free expression join forces

July 3rd, 2014 by Robin Hopkins

A year ago, I blogged about Privacy International’s legal challenge – alongside Liberty – against GCHQ, the Security Services and others concerning the Prism/Tempora programmes which came to public attention following Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing. That case is now before the Investigatory Powers Tribunal. It will be heard for 5 days, commencing on 14 July.

Privacy International has also brought a second claim against GCHQ: in May 2014, it issued proceedings concerning the use of ‘hacking’ tools and software by intelligence services.

It has been announced this week that Privacy International is party to a third challenge which has been filed with the Investigatory Powers Tribunal. This time, the claim is being brought alongside 7 internet service providers: GreenNet (UK), Chaos Computer Club (Germany); GreenHost (Netherlands); Jimbonet (Korea), Mango (Zimbabwe), May First/People Link (US) and Riseup (US).

The claim is interesting on a number of fronts. One is the interplay between global reach (see the diversity of the claimants’ homes) and this specific legal jurisdiction (the target is GCHQ and the jurisdiction is the UK – as opposed, for example, to bringing claims in the US). Another is that it sees private companies – and therefore Article 1 Protocol 1 ECHR issues about property, business goodwill and the like – surfacing in the UK’s internet surveillance debate.

Also, the privacy rights not only of ‘ordinary’ citizens (network users) but also specifically those of the claimants’ employees are being raised.

Finally, this claim sees the right to free expression under Article 10 ECHR – conspicuously absent, for example, in the Google Spain judgment – flexing its muscle in the surveillance context. Privacy and free expression rights are so often in tension, but here they make common cause.

The claims are as follows (quoting from the claimants’ press releases):

(1) By interfering with network assets and computers belonging to the network providers, GCHQ has contravened the UK Computer Misuse Act and Article 1 of the First Additional Protocol (A1AP) of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), which guarantees the individual’s peaceful enjoyment of their possessions

(2) Conducting surveillance of the network providers’ employees is in contravention of Article 8 ECHR (the right to privacy) and Article 10 ECHR (freedom of expression)

(3) Surveillance of the network providers’ users that is made possible by exploitation of their internet infrastructure, is in contravention of Arts. 8 and 10 ECHR; and

(4) By diluting the network providers’ goodwill and relationship with their users, GCHQ has contravened A1AP ECHR.

Robin Hopkins @hopkinsrobin


PRISM and TEMPORA: ECtHR proceedings issued against UK

October 4th, 2013 by Robin Hopkins

Panopticon reported in July that Privacy International had commenced proceedings in the Investigatory Powers Tribunal against the UK intelligence and security agencies concerning PRISM and TEMPORA.

Big Brother Watch, the Open Rights Group, English PEN and Dr Constance Kurz announced yesterday that they have issued proceedings on the same issues – this time in the European Court of Human Rights. They have also published their pleadings and expert evidence (see the bottom of this page). To quote from their pleadings, they challenge on Article 8 ECHR grounds:

(a)    The soliciting or receipt and use by the UK intelligence services (“UKIS”), of data obtained from foreign intelligence partners, in particular the US National Security Agency’s “PRISM” and “UPSTREAM” programmes; and

(b)   The acquisition of worldwide and domestic communications by the Government Communications Head Quarters (“GCHQ”) for use by UKIS and other UK and foreign agencies through the interception, under global and rolling warrants, of electronic data transmitted on transatlantic fibre-optic cables (the “TEMPORA” programme).

The claim is put in summary terms as follows (again, quoting from the pleadings):

(1) In relation to receipt of foreign intercept material—i.e. the receipt, use, retention and dissemination of information received by UKIS from foreign intelligence partners which have themselves obtained it by communications intercept—the legal framework [including RIPA 2000] is inadequate to comply with the “in accordance with the law” requirement under Article 8(2).

(2) In relation to GCHQ’s own generic interception capability, the provisions contained in RIPA relating to external communications warrants allow UKIS to obtain general warrants permitting indiscriminate capturing of vast amounts of communication, effectively on an indefinite basis. The legal provisions which permit generic warrants in relation to such external communications are insufficiently protective to provide an ascertainable check against arbitrary use of secret and intrusive state power.

(3) Such legal provisions do not enable persons to foresee the general circumstances in which external communications may be the subject of surveillance (other than that any use may be made of communications if considered in the interests of national security—a concept of very broad scope in UK law); they do not require authorisations to be granted in relation to specific categories of persons or premises; they permit indiscriminate capture of communications data by reference only to its means of transmission; and they impose no significant restrictions on the access that foreign intelligence partners may have to such intercepted material. In short, there are no defined limits on the scope of discretion conferred on the competent authorities or the manner of its exercise. Moreover, there is no adequate degree of independent or democratic oversight. Indiscriminate and generic interception and the legal provisions under which it is carried out thereby breach the requirements that interferences with Article 8 must be “in accordance with the law” and must be proportionate.

To quote the briefing note, the applicants “are asking the Court to declare that the UK’s internet surveillance practices are disproportionate and that the legislation intended to protect the public’s rights to privacy in this context is not fit for purpose”.

In other words, this is challenge not only to specific actions, but to the UK’s regulatory regime for surveillance more broadly. The applicants also draw attention (pleadings, paragraph 121.7) to the fact that the Data Protection Act 1998 is powerless to protect personal data in this context, given the exemption for national security at s. 28 of that Act.

Robin Hopkins


What does ‘surveillance’ mean?

July 29th, 2013 by Robin Hopkins

A five-member panel of the Investigatory Powers Tribunal last week issued its decision in Re: a Complaint of Surveillance (case no: IPT/A1/2013). The decision was on a preliminary point arising from this sort of factual scenario: suppose you voluntarily participate in an interview with policing/investigatory authorities but, unbeknownst to you, the investigators use a device to record that interview? Would this act of recording constitute ‘surveillance’ for the purposes of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA), such that it requires authorisation (assuming it to be ‘directed’) was required? Would it engage your rights under Article 8 ECHR?

There are arguments both ways. As the IPT observed, “the wording in Part II [of RIPA] presents some difficulties for the reasonable reader”. The official guidance publications answer the above questions differently: the Office of the Surveillance Commissioners answers ‘yes’, but the Home Office answers ‘no’.

The IPT has agreed with the Home Office’s interpretation.

By s. 48(2) RIPA, Parliament has chosen not to define ‘surveillance’ as such, but to deem that surveillance shall be construed so as to include certain activities. Those deeming examples extend or amplify the ordinary meaning of ‘surveillance’, the essence of which is that person who is subject to surveillance is intended to remain unaware of those means and does not engage with the person secretly gathering the intelligence. In the IPT’s view, “the notion of a ‘covert interview’ requiring RIPA authorisation is one that is difficult to grasp. An interview is by its very nature an overt intelligence gathering operation in which the interviewee actively participates, even if only to the extent of refusing to answer questions”. Such interviews cannot constitute ‘surveillance’ and Article 8 rights are not engaged here.

It follows that the recording of the interview is not observing or listening to “in the course of surveillance” within the meaning of s. 48(2)(b) of RIPA, and no authorisation is required. The making of the recording only involves the recording process itself. It does not involve a separate act of “observing or listening to” the person being interviewed.

The IPT expressly rejected the contention that, regardless of the purpose, nature or circumstances of the intelligence-gathering activities in question, every act of “observing or listening to persons”, their conversations or communications is automatically treated as surveillance.

Robin Hopkins (@hopkinsrobin)


Prism and Tempora: Privacy International commences legal action

July 10th, 2013 by Robin Hopkins

Panopticon has reported in recent weeks that, following the Edward Snowden/Prism disclosures, Liberty has brought legal proceedings against the UK’s security bodies. This week, Privacy International has announced that it too is bringing a claim in the Investigatory Powers Tribunal – concerning both the Prism and Tempora programmes. It summarises its claim in these terms:

“Firstly, for the failure to have a publicly accessible legal framework in which communications data of those located in the UK is accessed after obtained and passed on by the US National Security Agency through the Prism programme.  Secondly, for the indiscriminate interception and storing of huge amounts of data via tapping undersea fibre optic cables through the Tempora programme.”

Legal complaints on Prism-related transfers have been made elsewhere on data protection grounds also. A group of students who are members of a group called Europe vs. Facebook have filed complaints to the data protection authorities in Ireland (against Facebook and Apple), Luxembourg (against Skype and Microsoft) and Germany (against Yahoo).

European authorities have expressed concerns on these issues in their own right. For example, the Vice President of the European Commission, Viviane Reding, has written to the British Foreign Secretary, William Hague, about the Tempora programme, and has directed similar concerns at the US (including in a piece in the New York Times). The European Parliament has also announced that a panel of its Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs will be convened to investigate the Prism-related surveillance of EU citizens. It says the panel will report by the end of 2013.

In terms of push-back within the US, it has been reported that Texas has introduced a bill strengthening the requirements for warrants to be obtained before any emails (as opposed to merely unread ones) can be disclosed to state and local law enforcement agencies.

Further complaints, litigation and potential legal challenges will doubtless arise concerning Prism, Tempora and the like.

Robin Hopkins