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EU judges could limit UK surveillance powers

1st Apr 2016

EU judges in Luxembourg could limit key powers in UK surveillance laws.

An emergency hearing regarding the bulk interception of communications data has been scheduled for 12 April at the European court of justice (ECJ), whose rulings are binding on UK courts.

The case will focus on the legality of how police and intelligence services access retained data, judicial authorisation of the process and bulk interception of information relating to emails, phone calls and text messages.

The case raises significant dilemmas in balancing conflicting interests of online privacy and national security that at least nine other EU countries and the European commission have also made submissions.

The issues are all crucial aspects of the investigatory powers bill, also known as the snooper’s charter, which has had its second reading in parliament and will lay down the rules for future government surveillance.

Clarification of EU law was sought by the court of appeal. In granting the expedited hearing, the president of the ECJ, the Belgian judge Koen Lenaerts, said the dispute was over Home Office powers “to require public telecommunications operators to retain communications data for a maximum period of 12 months, retention of the content of the communications concerned being excluded”.

The judge also noted that “national legislation that permits the retention of all electronic communications data and subsequent access to that data is liable to cause serious interference with the fundamental rights laid down in articles 7 and 8 of the charter of fundamental rights of the European Union.”

A number of organisations – including Privacy International, the Law Society and Open Rights Group – have also intervened in the ECJ case.

Millie Graham Wood, from Privacy International, said they believe  “existing EU law rules out data retention regimes of the kind […] reflected in the investigatory powers bill” as “Blanket retention of communications data without suspicion violates the right to privacy, as well as putting the security of personal data at risk of attack by criminals and others.”