British government breaks the law by forcing data retention, but the need for it may be greater than ever…

A law enforced by the British government since the previous Labour administration, known as the Data Retention Act of 2009, has forced companies to breach citizens’ fundamental right to privacy and is now facing a high court challenge from the EU which would force it to be removed from law.

It was first enacted in response to the 2006 EU data retention directive, which required member states to store citizens’ telecoms data for a minimum of six months and a maximum of 24 months. The current British implemented law requires providers to keep data for 18 months. Back in April, however, the European court of justice declared the directive invalid.

Despite being made invalid by Europe’s highest court, the UK government has taken no steps to invalidate the act. In an answer to a question posed by Liberal Democrat MP, Julian Huppert, the Home Office minister, James Brokenshire, revealed that the government had explicitly told involved telecoms providers that “they should continue to observe their obligations as outlined in any notice.”

Data retention laws were first implemented after the terrorist attacks on America’s twin towers and London’s underground tube network. But with recent revelations pointing towards potentially “thousands” of Britons joining the ISIS terrorist organisation – the retention of data could be more important than ever.

The Home Secretary, Theresa May, held a speech on “Privacy, security, and the threats we face” of which a transcript is available here. In the speech, May says: “The world is a dangerous place and the United Kingdom needs the capabilities to defend its interests and protect its citizens.”

She adds: “This task is, of course, becoming more complicated. The evolution of the internet and modern forms of communication provide those who would do us harm with new options; they provide those who would protect us – the police, the security and intelligence agencies, the National Crime Agency and others – with new challenges. And they have kicked off new debates about the balance between privacy and security.”

As part of her job role, she must check all warrants from the police for surveillance whether this is putting a device in the property of a terror suspect, or listening in on the calls of a drugs trafficker. Such intrusive methods are only authorised when the powers used are necessary and proportionate.

May says: “They inform me about terrorist plots that could kill innocent civilians and damage our economy. Many applications now relate to events in Syria and the plans young British people have to travel there to fight. Some applications concern attempts to proliferate chemical biological and sometimes even nuclear technology. Threats in cyber space – from organised criminals and hostile foreign states – are increasingly common.”

Between September 2001 and the end of 2013, more than 2,500 people were arrested for terrorist offences in the UK. Almost 400 people have been convicted for terrorism-related offences. Whilst more than one major attack in this UK has been disrupted each year since 2005 with even more overseas. Those are some worrying statistics, and put in perspective the scale of the issue and how data retention is helping with the job authorities have been doing to prevent such attacks.

A Home Office spokesman said the department was "looking at the issue as a matter of urgency, and deciding what steps need to be taken to ensure public authorities can continue to access communications data. However, we have advised communications service providers that the UK Data Retention Regulation remains in force."

Labour MP, Tom Watson, weighed in on the issue and argued that the retained data can be used to construct a complete and accurate picture of the individual’s private identity.

Whilst this is part of the reason why authorities retain data, he highlights the fact data can be used illegally in ways that are "potentially detrimental to privacy or, more broadly, fraudulent or even malicious."

Do you think the UK should continue retaining data? Let us know in the comments.

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