MPs and peers are not immune from legitimate snooping or monitoring, a court has ruled. The verdict overturns the 50-year-old Wilson Doctrine which protected them from phone tapping.
The Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) also ruled that the doctrine had no legal force. Consequently, the parliamentarians's calls, texts and emails were not protected from monitoring by intelligence services.
"The doctrine was a political statement in a political context, encompassing the ambiguity that is sometimes to be found in political statements. However, in practice the [intelligence] agencies must comply with the draft code and with their own guidance. The regime for the interception of parliamentarians' communications is well with the law," the court ruled.
The order came to light as three Green lawmakers — Caroline Lucas, Jenny Jones and ex-Respect Party lawmaker George Galloway — complained to the tribunal that their communications were being intercepted by the spy agency Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ). They argued that the data-gathering violated the Wilson Doctrine, which was implemented by Prime Minister Harold Wilson in 1966. Under the doctrine, no lawmaker's telephone can be tapped except during a national emergency, the trio contended.
Lucas said the ruling was a "body blow for parliamentary democracy" and warned that it would affect protection for whistle-blowers seeking to offer confidential information to MPs.
She also urged Prime Minister David Cameron to protect politicians from GCHQ spying in the upcoming Surveillance Bill. Lucas also cited how former US contractor and whistle-blower Edward Snowden exposed programs like the GCHQ's Tempora that used intercepts on fibre-optic cables to engage in mass surveillance of private internet and telephone communications.
The IPT ruling surprised many who have, over the years, been assured by several prime ministers that the Wilson doctrine would remain in place. As recently as Monday (12 October) the home secretary, Theresa May, told MPs the Wilson doctrine was very much applicable but subject to proceedings taking place at that moment.
The tribunal, while ruling that there is no authority for enhanced protection for MPs, pointed out that MPs and peers enjoy are still technically protected by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, which prevents monitoring of communications between MPs and their constituents. But those rights could be questioned if a matter was deemed sensitive and concerned national security.
Earlier this month Snowden told BBC in an interview that GCHQ is capable of hacking into anyone's phone without the owner's knowledge. The former intelligence contractor also revealed the existence of GCHQ's Smurf Suite, a collection of secret intercept capabilities individually named after the blue cartoon characters such as Dreamy Smurf and Nosey Smurf.