Case Studies

Reform for espionage law proposed

by Mark Rowe

The UK needs reform of its laws covering espionage (spying) and unauthorised disclosures (leaks), according to a report from the Law Commission. The Commission, a statutory body that makes recommendations to government, says that it agrees with the Russia report, published by the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament in July, that pointed to a need for reform of the Official Secrets Act so that espionage can be properly prosecuted. That was featured in the September 2020 print edition of Professional Security magazine.

Prof Penney Lewis, Criminal Law Commissioner, said: “In the last twenty years, the world has moved on but these vital laws protecting our national security have not kept up. They are in urgent need of reform. Our recommendations will help to give the Government the tools it needs to respond to espionage and leaks, whilst also being proportionate and protecting individuals’ human rights.”

The Commission argues that the Official Secrets Acts that cover spying and leaks are no longer fit for purpose. While the most recent law dates from 1989, the Official Secrets Act 1911 still provides the principal legal protection in the UK against espionage (whether by trespassing, such as on official dockyards, or, later, airfields; or gathering information and passing it on), despite the fact the 1911 Act was passed in the era of the German Kaiser and telegrams. For one thing, technology has changed the nature of espionage and leaks: hostile states can conduct cyber-attacks on the UK through multiple servers across multiple countries. At the same time, the potential impact of spying and leaks has increased: a single disclosure could contain terabytes of data.

Also, as some of the language of the Official Secrets Acts is archaic, the Commission recommends replacing the word “enemy” with “foreign power”, which could include terrorist groups and companies controlled by a state.

For the full 274-page review of protection of official data, visit https://www.lawcom.gov.uk/project/protection-of-official-data/.

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