The British Government’s mass surveillance powers have been severally undermined by the European Union’s top court. This happened after a new ruling that could harness spy and police agencies investigations. On Wednesday, a judgement was handed down in Luxembourg by the European Court of Justice which declared that the general and indiscriminate retention of data about people’s communications and locations was against the privacy rights. The court pointed out that the bulk storage of private data was highly invasive and that it exceeded the limits that define what is necessary, adding that the move cannot be considered justifiable in a democratic nation.
Several people support the ruling by the European Union Courts, such include Camilla Graham Wood who is a legal officer with the London-based group Privacy International. Graham welcomed the ruling pointing out that it’s victory for the civil liberties advocates in today’s world. She also pointed out that the ruling was a major blow against the mass surveillance and that it was an important moment for privacy. Graham emphasized that the indiscriminate retention of digital histories of who we interact with, when and how and where is a very intrusive form of surveillance that needs to be addressed to avoid mission creep and abuse.
The 15 Judge panel of the European courts pointed out that it was inevitable to employ modern investigative techniques adding that it was necessary to fight the growing threat of terrorism and organized crime. However, the judges emphasized that this was not adequate to justify the indiscriminate and general retention of location and traffic data. The judges provided an alternative to the government emphasizing that it is acceptable for governments to engage in the targeted retention of data in cases that involve serious crime, adding that the individuals affected by any surveillance should be notified after the investigations are completed, the judges also said that access to the data should be overseen by an independent administrative or judicial authority.
The controversial case was brought in December 2014 by two members of the British parliament. The two challenged the legality of the U.K. government’s Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act that had forced telecommunications companies to store data records on their clients for 12 months. The Investigatory Powers Act has since replaced the law, the investigatory Act was approved by the British parliament and it’s expected to be effective very soon.
The Wednesday decision is very significant despite the U.K. having voted to leave the European Union earlier this year. The decision will be a challenge to many government officials in the British government. The U.K.’s Court of Appeal will be the next to handle the ruling and they will be expected to consider the application of the ruling in the national law context. This move might force the government to make changes to the controversial sections of the Investigatory Powers Act; this empowers spy and police agencies to have access to vast amounts of data on user’s instant messages, internet browsing data, phone calls, social media conversations and emails.