The legality of the intelligence services’ bulk surveillance activities under which personal data is obtained from social media companies as well as through hacking and interception is being being challenged in court.
Monday’s action by the civil rights organisation Liberty follows revelations last week that MI5 had lost control of its data storage operations and admitted there were “ungoverned spaces” on its computers where it did not know what it held.
Last year, Liberty won a ruling in the high court that sections of the 2016 Investigatory Powers Act, labelled by critics as the “snooper’s charter”, needed to to be rewritten to comply with EU law that protects privacy.
In the latest stage of its challenge to the act, lawyers for Liberty have argued that the powers operated by MI5 and the monitoring agency GCHQ to obtain, store and search communications data breach human rights.
Email exchanges, social media and phone records are acquired under “bulk warrants” whether or not those involved are of intelligence interest or suspected of a crime.
In parliamentary debates about the Investigatory Powers Act, the government insisted the security services conduct only targeted searches of data under legal warrants in pursuit of terrorist or criminal activity and that bulk interception is necessary as a first step in that process.
At the high court on Monday, Liberty is challenging the use of bulk warrants for interception, hacking and acquisition by compelling private companies to pass over data.
Compliance with the Investigatory Powers Act is overseen by the investigatory powers commissioner, Lord Justice Fulford, who has announced he is stepping down from the role in October almost six months earlier than scheduled. He is to become vice-president of the criminal division of the court of appeal.
In comments revealed during legal action last week, it emerged that Fulford had written to MI5 warning that future applications for interception warrants “will not be approved by the judicial commissioners” unless there were improvements to its storage practices.
The National Union of Journalists has intervened in the latest case, arguing that there are insufficient safeguards in the act to protect confidential journalistic sources.
The hearing, at the Royal Courts of Justice in London, is expected to last five days.