Thoughts on the new Data Retention Bill

The Communications (Retention of Data) Bill 2009, published last week, has caused a bit of a stir in this morning’s newspapers. It will give effect to EU Data Retention Directive 2006/24/EC of 15 March 2006 (blogged here) which recently survived challenge by the Irish Government in the European Court of Justice, and it will replace the radically misconceived and deeply flawed stop-gap Part 7 of the Criminal Justice (Terrorist Offences) Act, 2005 (also here) (blogged here).

In essence, the Bill requires telecommunications companies, internet service providers, and the like, to retain data about communications (though not the content of the communications); phone and mobile traffic data have to be retained for 2 years; internet communications have to be retained for one year. This is better than it could have been, in that the Directive would have allowed 2 years for all traffic data; but it is a lot worse than the minimum of 6 months allowed by the Directive. This will impose significant costs on those obliged to retain and secure the data, and those costs will be passed on to their already hard-pressed customers. And it is likely to drive international telecommunications and internet companies to European states which have introduced far less demanding regimes.

Traffic data retention (like any example of pre-emptive and widespread surveillance) is simply a bad idea; it is a massive invasion of privacy; it is founded on the illiberal and anti-democratic suspicion that someone somewhere might be doing something; and it is not good enough to reply that if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear from surveillance. As the prolific and challenging AC Grayling argues in his new book Liberty in the Age of Terror: A Defence of Civil Society and Enlightenment Values (Bloomsbury, 2009; reviewed by The Economist here), this pernicious assertion is “one of the most seductive betrayals of liberty” imaginable; it assumes that

the authorities will always be benign; will always reliably identify and interfere with genuinely bad people only; will never find themselves engaging in ‘mission creep’, with more and more uses to put their new powers and capabilities to; will not redefine crimes, nor redefine various behaviours or views now regarded as acceptable, to extend the range of things for which people can be placed under suspicion—and so considerably on.

The concerns might be met by strong protections coupled with meaningful oversight, but the Bill is worryingly bereft on this score. Although it imposes obligations to retain data, and to maintain it secure, and to prevent unauthorised access to data, it does not provide any redress to someone whose data is retained insecurely or accessed without authorisation; and the Data Protection Acts, 1988 (also here) and 2003 (also here) are inadequate to cope (for example, they would provide no criminal sanction for the News of the World’s recently-disclosed shenanigans). Worse than that, large-scale databases are peculiarly vulnerable to attack – an investigation by More4 News for Channel 4 reported last week (in a story that should give some pause to those planning a system to trace patients for Ireland) that more than 8,000 dangerous viruses have infected NHS computers in the last year, overloading networks, and massively compromising large amounts of personal data.

It is appropriate to restrict individual privacy provided that there is a good reason to do so, and the restrictions do not good too far. In the context of this Bill, the prevention of crime is a good reason, but the restrictions seem to go very far indeed, especially in the absence of proper protections and oversight. In S and Marper v UK 30562/04 [2008] ECHR 1581 (4 December 2008) one of the reasons given by the European Court of Human Rights for holding that the UK’s retention of innocent people’s DNA records on a criminal register infringed their right to privacy was the lack of sufficiently strong safeguards. I am a Director of Digital Rights Ireland; this is one aspect of our ongoing challenge to Ireland’s data retention regime; and this flawed Bill does nothing to alleviate these concerns.

(Cross-posted from Eoin O’Dell’s blog,