Since the British government announced late last month that it would mandate telecom companies and internet service providers to keep user phone and web records for up to 12 months. This was to allow law enforcements access those records should they choose with the aim of carrying out investigations. As expected, civil liberty organisations have been against the legislation and have since taken the matter to the European court (even though Britain is just about leaving the body) and it looks they scored a major victory yesterday. Europe’s highest court (ECJ) ruled that the UK’s surveillance powers are illegal even the country is about to formally adopt the law and in fact parts of it could begin by the end of this year which is just a couple of days.
Before the European court’s ruling, A British High Court had ruled that the law violated the fundamental human rights of citizens. The government appealed this and that’s how the case got to the European court.
The security services argue that mass surveillance of this scale is necessary in order to keep citizens safe during a time of heightened threats, global terrorist attacks and cyberwarfare. But human rights groups have long said that while some surveillance is necessary, the basic privacy of citizens should not be violated in the process. The court said the “general and indiscriminate retention” of data by the government was indeed illegal but the court however said “targeted retention” can only be used in cases where there is reason to believe there is an imminent threat. As usual, the British government like their American counterparts would argue that a Judge usually would approve such “secret” processes in the first place and that’s assuming that the public should at least trust that the courts would protect their rights.
While this remains a victory for the human right groups, its likely not to stop the UK government from going forward with most parts of the law including the holding phone records which is due to begin any day now
Liberty’s (a civil liberties group) director Martha Spurrier said in a statement that “Today’s judgment upholds the rights of ordinary British people not to have their personal lives spied on without good reason or an independent warrant…. the government must now make urgent changes to the Investigatory Powers Act to comply with this.”
What’s now left is that the case will now go back to the Britain’s Court of Appeal where judges will rule Vis a Vis UK laws with respect to surveillance.
The government argues that it has to keep the people safe from attacks and as they say, prevention is better than cure. But this keeps the privacy vs. security debate well alive. We’ll see how this plays out in future.