The UK government wants telco to participate in real-time surveillance

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The UK government wants telco to participate in real-time surveillance

An attempt by the UK government to acquire more powers to collect wide-ranging digital data on citizens, such as web browsing histories, texts, emails and other forms of communication, has been struck a blow by the European Court of Justice (ECJ).

The ECJ has moved to block parts of the new Investigatory Powers Act, criticising mass gathering and storage of citizens’ information. The court’s ruling will be viewed as a particular blow by Theresa May, as the Prime Minister had firmly encouraged the passage of the Bill when she was Home Secretary.

The ECJ stated that the Investigatory Powers Act went beyond the boundaries of data collection in a democratic nation and that its reach went a long way beyond EU limits for laws on retention of data and its protection. The court indicated that data should be collected as a targeted exercise, and only then after appropriate review.

The court issued a statement saying that with respect to the volumes of data being retained, the delicacy of that data and the threat of that data being unlawfully exploited or its security breached, any legislation would have to stipulate that the data be kept inside the EU. In addition, there would have to be a provision ensuring that the data would be irreversibly destroyed at the conclusion of the set data retention timeframe.

The court case had accused the UK government of taking illegal action on telecoms and data collection. It was brought by David Davis, who is now the secretary for Brexit. Mr Davis was assisted by the Labour MP Tom Watson, and their case was supported by Liberty, the organisation for human rights. The ruling by the ECJ also applied to some legislation in Sweden. In Sweden, laws had required telecoms providers to keep the traffic and location data of all customers. In Britain, the law allows the authorities to request that firms keep data for a maximum of a year.

The ruling directs some unwelcome attention at Mr Davis, who had removed his backing for the legal confrontation after Mrs May promoted him to her Cabinet. The ECJ decision could lead to some awkward moments between Mr Davis and his Prime Minister, according to Ian Bond, who is the director of the Centre for European Reform’s foreign policy unit.

Even with Brexit looming, the UK could still be bound to abide by the ruling. This could be affected by agreements on data and telecoms with remaining EU member states. In the UK, the Home Office said that the ruling was disappointing and that the case would be taken to the Court of Appeal. The UK says the legislation is needed for giving security agencies more power in gathering information for investigation and prevention of serious crimes and attacks. Advocates for the privacy rights of citizens say that retaining mass data in this way is not effective in dealing with or preventing crime.