After five years of legal wrangling, the UK High Court has ruled that the security and intelligence services cannot search the computers and phones of millions of people under a single ‘general warrant’.
Quashing a decision by the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT), the court ruled that section 5 of the Intelligence Services Act (ISA) 1994 does not permit the issuing of general warrants to property interference with property and certain forms of computer hacking.
The decision hinged on common law indicating that the government can’t search private premises – including computers and phones – without lawful authority; and that a warrant must target an identified individual or individuals. Because general warrants aren’t targeted, the court found, they lack that lawful authority.
“The aversion to general warrants is one of the basic principles on which the law of the United Kingdom is founded,” the court said in its ruling.
“As such, it may not be overridden by statute unless the wording of the statute makes clear that Parliament intended to do so.”
The use of general warrants was revealed in 2014, following the Edward Snowden disclosures, but a challenge by campaign gruop Privacy International failed in 2016.
However, in May 2019, the Supreme Court ruled that the Investigatory Powers Tribunal’s decisions are subject to judicial review in the High Court, leading to today’s hearing.
“Today’s victory rightly brings 250 years of legal precedent into the modern age. General warrants are no more permissible today than they were in the 18th century,” says Privacy International’s legal director, Caroline Wilson Palow.
“The government had been getting away with using them for too long. We welcome the High Court’s affirmation of these fundamental constitutional principles.” The government could in theory respond by specifically passing legislation to legitimize the use of general warrants.
However, similar practices have already been declared unlawful by the European Court of Human Rights. And while the UK’s departure from the EU could in theory negate this decision,…