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Top 10 stories on state surveillance, technology and the law in 2017

In 2017, the government faced multiple legal challenges over the legality of mass surveillance of the population, most of whom pose no threat, in cases that will set the parameters between individual freedom and state intrusion

When Edward Snowden released documents showing the extraordinary scale of UK and US surveillance on ordinary people back in 2013, there were many in the intelligence agencies who were rightly worried that their surveillance powers would be challenged in the courts.

Four years later, a slew of court cases brought by Privacy International, Liberty, other campaigning groups and courageous individuals are shedding new light on the practices of the secret state, and are beginning – but only beginning – to establish where the limits of state intrusion should lie.

New laws and state powers introduced to combat terrorism have quietly eroded the right to privacy and due process, with sometimes Kafkaesque consequences for those individuals unlucky enough to be caught up in the legal machinery.

Muhammad Rabbani, international director of advocacy group Cage, said no after he was stopped and questioned and ordered to disclose his computer passwords, under a law that permits police to stop people and seize their computer equipment in airports without any grounds for suspicion.

And Lauri Love, a brilliant 32-year-old engineering student, is fighting to be tried in the UK – as the law allows – rather face hacking charges in the US, where the prisons would struggle to prevent his potential suicide or meet his medical needs.

Their battles will become important milestones in setting the boundaries between the rights of the individual and the rights of the state, and will ultimately decide what liberties society is prepared to sacrifice for the promise of greater security.

1. Islamic State supporters shun Tails and Tor encryption for Telegram

Confidential communications show terror group’s supporters are turning to simple mobile phone messaging apps to exchange messages and distribute propaganda.

2. UK intelligence agencies ‘unlawfully’ sharing sensitive personal data

A secret court will decide whether intelligence agencies are “unlawfully” sharing huge datasets containing sensitive information about the population with industry, government departments and overseas intelligence services.

3. Safeguards permit GCHQ to share huge databases on public

Intelligence commissioners did not need technical expertise or support staff to check whether GCHQ and MI5 were lawfully sharing huge databases, court told.

4. UK sale of surveillance equipment to Macedonia

The UK approved an export licence for the sale of mobile phone surveillance equipment from Gamma International UK to Macedonia – while the country was engaged in an illegal phone-tapping programme that eventually brought down the Macedonian government.

5. Lauri Love would face ‘medieval’ conditions in US prison if extradited over hacking charges

Engineering student Lauri Love should be tried in the UK, court hears, as new evidence is presented on the “medieval” conditions in US jails for people with medical problems.

6. Cage director found guilty of terrorism offence after refusing to disclose passwords

Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act allows police to stop, search and question anyone, and require them to hand over their computers, phones and passwords, without cause for suspicion. Muhammad Rabbani, international director of advocacy group Cage, was convicted in court when he refused.

7. UK spies face landmark challenge over mass surveillance in human rights court

Ten human rights organisations challenge lawfulness of UK surveillance legislation and mass internet surveillance by UK intelligence agencies in Strasbourg court. 

8. My brother Lauri Love should have the right to a trial in the UK

Natasha Love: Lauri Love should face trial over hacking allegations in a British court, rather than be extradited to the US, where his extraordinary skills will be lost to society, says his younger sister.

9. US says its views must be heard in legal challenge to EU-US data sharing

The US government says it “has issues” with an Irish High Court ruling, which will test the legality of EU-US data transfers as Facebook considers an appeal to Supreme Court.

10. Max Schrems’s mass surveillance complaint knocked back another year or two by Irish judge

Irish data protection commissioner Helen Dixon has neatly avoided having to deal with the US surveillance of Facebook users in Europe by referring a complaint by Austrian lawyer Max Schrems to the European Court of Justice.

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