The British government’s mass surveillance powers have been severely undermined by The European Union’s top court. The new ruling could constrain police and spy agency investigations. The judgement was handed down last month, in Luxembourg, where the European Court of Justice declared that general and indiscriminate data retention regarding people’s communications and whereabouts is inconsistent with privacy rights. The court stated that bulk storage of private data is highly invasive and exceeds the limits of necessity, therefore it can’t be justified within a democratic society.
The ruling is a victory for civil liberties advocates, but a major blow against mass surveillance. Retention of our digital histories is a very intrusive form of surveillance which needs safeguarding. The 15 judges on the European court’s panel acknowledged that modern investigative techniques were necessary to fight against organized crime and terrorism efforts, but couldn’t justify general and indiscriminate retention of all traffic and location data.
It is still acceptable, however, for governments to perform targeted data retention. This pertains to cases involving serious crimes, but access to that data must be overseen by a judicial authority or independent administrative authority. Those who were targeted by surveillance will be notified upon completion of the investigation.
In December, 2014, two British members of parliament originated the case by challenging the legality of the UK government’s Data Retention, where telecommunications companies were forced to store their customers’ communication records for one year. The law was replaced with the Investigatory Powers Act, which was approved by British parliament.
Since the UK recently voted to leave the European Union, Wednesday’s significant ruling will likely be a headache for British government officials. The ruling will be forwarded to the UK’s Court of Appeal, so judges can determine how it will be applied in context with the national law. This might force the government to make changes to controversial sections of the Investigatory Powers Act, which gives police and spy agencies an abundance of access to civilian data.
This will mark the UK government’s first serious post-Brexit test to their commitment for protecting human rights and the rule of law. The people of the UK have voted to leave the EU, but not to give up their rights and freedoms. The government must now make significant changes to the Investigatory Powers Act in order to comply with the people’s personal privacy rights.
In a statement from the British government’s Home Office, a spokesperson said that “We are disappointed with the judgment from the European court of justice and will be considering its potential implications. The government will be putting forward robust arguments to the court of appeal about the strength of our existing regime for communications data retention and access.”
The UK’s appeal of the decision is likely be dragged out for a long time. If the appeal can outlast the completion of the Brexit process, the ruling will no longer matter. This should raise questions concerning politicians who are granting the government powers to inappropriately spy on citizens.