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Legal bid over personal dataset use

Published 08/06/2015

Privacy International has lodged a claim at the Investigatory Powers Tribunal objecting to the use of
Privacy International has lodged a claim at the Investigatory Powers Tribunal objecting to the use of "bulk personal datasets" by UK spy agencies

Privacy campaigners have launched a legal challenge against the use of large databases of personal information by Britain's spy agencies.

They are calling for watchdogs to intervene to end a technique which is seen as an "increasingly important investigative tool" for intelligence agencies.

Privacy International said it lodged a claim at the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) today objecting to the use of "bulk personal datasets" by MI5, MI6 and listening post GCHQ.

They contain information which may be "extremely intrusive and sensitive" about "very large numbers of people, the majority of whom are of no legitimate intelligence interest whatsoever", legal papers from the campaign group allege.

Privacy International is calling on the IPT to declare the use of the datasets unlawful and issue an injunction blocking their future use.

The Home Office said all surveillance activity is carried out in accordance with a "strict legal and policy framework".

Details about the use by security services of bulk personal databases emerged in a report by MPs earlier this year.

The Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) said they are "large databases containing personal information about a wide range of people" which vary in size from hundreds to millions of records.

They are used to identify "subjects of interest" during the course of investigations, establish links and as a means of verifying information obtained through other sources.

The report said GCHQ told the committee it considers bulk personal datasets to be an "increasingly important investigative tool" which is primarily used to "enrich" information already obtained through other techniques.

Agencies said the acquisition and use of the databases is "tightly controlled", the ISC report said.

The committee did not provide details of the information contained in the datasets but said it had examined lists of those agencies can access and considered them to be "relevant to national security investigations".

It called for the capability to be "clearly acknowledged" and put on a "specific statutory footing".

The report added: "Given that this capability may be highly intrusive and impacts upon large numbers of people, it is essential that it is tightly regulated."

Privacy International alleges that the regime governing the practice does not contain "adequate safeguards" to provide "proper protection against arbitrary conduct".

Its deputy director Eric King claimed there was a "loophole in the law the size of a double decker bus".

He added: "Bulk collection of data about millions of people who have no ties to terrorism, nor are suspected of any crime is plainly wrong."

A Home Office spokeswoman said: "All surveillance activity is carried out in accordance with a strict legal and policy framework, which ensures that the activities of our intelligence and law enforcement agencies to keep us all safe are authorised, necessary and proportionate, and that there is rigorous oversight."

Activities of intelligence and security services have come under intense scrutiny following the revelations by former US National Security Agency worker Edward Snowden.

In its report the ISC found that intelligence and security agencies do not seek to circumvent the law and cleared GCHQ of carrying out mass, indiscrimnate online surveillance of the public.

It said that its inquiry found that the authorities do not have the "legal authority, the resources, the technical capability, or the desire to intercept every communication of British citizens, or of the internet as a whole".

A separate report by Interception of Communications Commissioner Sir Anthony May posed the question of whether agencies misuse their powers to engage in "random mass intrusion into the private affairs of law abiding UK citizens who have no actual or reasonably suspected involvement in terrorism or serious crime".

He wrote that the answer was "emphatically no".

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