‘National security’ can’t be used as an excuse to bypass privacy laws

A preliminary ECJ ruling would limit the power of member states to sidestep privacy and data protection laws

EU member states might no longer be able to cite national security concerns as the basis for flouting data protection and privacy laws in the bulk collection of personal data, according to a preliminary legal judgement.

Security services should not have a blanket power to demand the personal and communications data of citizens from telecoms and tech companies, according to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) advocate general Campos Sanchez-Bordona.

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Activities aimed at safeguarding national security - and that don’t rely on the co-operation of third parties - are exempt from the Directive on privacy and electronic communications, the advocate general has said. There are, however, complications that arise when private companies and other organisations are imposed upon by member states to hand over personal and private data.

“When the cooperation of private parties, on whom certain obligations are imposed, is required, even when that is on grounds of national security, that brings those activities into an area governed by EU law: the protection of privacy enforceable against those private actors,” his opinion states.

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“Accordingly, the Directive is applicable, in principle, where providers of electronic services are required by law to retain data belonging to their subscribers and to activities that are aimed at safeguarding national security and are carried out by the public authorities on their own account, without requiring the cooperation of private parties and not, therefore, imposing obligations on the latter in relation to the management of their businesses.”

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The advocate general, moreover, has suggested the indiscriminate retention of all traffic and location data of subscribers and registered users to any particular third-party service is entirely disproportionate.

He has recommended that data retention is targeted and limited to certain categories, with access to this data also limited and subject to approval by a court or independent authority. 

There are a handful of circumstances, however, where Sanchez-Bordona sees no reason why data can’t be retained and accessed on a general basis, for example in the event of intelligence pointing to an immediate threat.

Generally, however, such data collection is not compatible with the general EU privacy rules, and should not be exempted from them over national security grounds.

The preliminary ruling is directly antagonistic to the wishes of various EU governments, including and especially the UK, having argued that legislation such as the Investigatory Powers Act 2016 is necessary to keep citizens safe. 

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The act, nicknamed the ‘Snooper’s Charter’, contains provisions for bulk data collection and has been subject to various legal challenges through European courts. The UK has argued that the provisions outlined in the legislation should be exempt from privacy laws.

While the advocate general does not speak for the ECJ, their opinion carries great weight in the process by which decisions are reached. Deliberations have begun, and a judgement will be delivered at a later indeterminate date.

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