Proposed changes to the UK's espionage laws could lead to an unprecedented crackdown on whistleblowers and journalists who handle secretive national security data, leading privacy campaigners have warned.
In early February, the Law Commission released a 300+ page consultation paper detailing a major overhaul of the UK Official Secrets Acts that indicated spies, government employees and civil servants caught leaking secretive data may soon face up to 14 years in prison.
Now, it has emerged the legal changes would also apply to journalists. For example, under the new law, proposed as an umbrella Espionage Act, staff at The Guardian working to disclose the Edward Snowden leaks back in 2013 would have faced prosecution.
The British government maintains the legal shake-up is needed to stay up to date in the modern digital age and has said the current maximum prison sentence in the UK of two years is no longer enough.
Privacy campaigners have said it is an assault on whistleblowing itself.
"This is a full-frontal attack, recommending criminalising even examining secret services' material," Jim Killock of the Open Rights Group told The Guardian. "The intention is to stop the public from ever knowing that any secret agency has ever broken the law.
"They want to make it a criminal offence for journalists to handle a large volume of documents in the way that journalists did with Snowden. They have even recommended that foreigners be criminalised for this, meaning Snowden would be prosecutable in the UK."
Killock, who spoke out alongside campaigners from Liberty and Public Concern at Work, complained the "mere handing of documents" from inside agencies like the National Security Agency or its British equivilent, GCHQ, would become "a criminal offence" without sufficient justification.
"Spying becomes possession of secret information," he said. "This is not what any of us would recognise as the definition of spying. It's spying as China might define it."
The UK's Law Commission, which is independent of government, claimed to have consulted a wide variety of media publications and privacy advocacy groups before the paper's release, however this is now being disputed by prominent voices who say they were not properly involved.
Killock said: "The real tragedy of this is that they've had nine months to actually talk to journalists and civil liberty organisations, and find out what the consequences of their suggestions might be, and in actual fact they've managed to talk to no one.
"But they've listed us all as having being consulted in the paper anyway."
When the consultation paper was first released into the public domain, the Law Commission's David Ormerod QC referenced potential whistleblowing concerns and stressed the proposals were not "about gagging people who have real concerns."
A government spokesman added: "We welcome the important work undertaken by the Law Commission, at the request of Government. As the work is ongoing and no final conclusions have been made, it would be inappropriate to comment at this stage."