Privacy in the digital age

A short article by Shami Chakrabarti, the Director of Liberty, exploring the right to privacy in the UK and whether our digital rights are protected.

What does privacy mean to us?

In one way or another we are all concerned with our privacy. From dressing rooms and garden fences to computer passwords and pin numbers, we all have aspects of our lives we seek to protect from others. In fact, it is such an important part of the human experience that it has been declared a fundamental human right. But despite their duty to protect our rights, our privacy is being gradually eroded by the Government.

The ‘human experience’ can change of course – life nowadays bears very little resemblance to the 1950s. Perhaps the most radical change in recent times has been the emergence of the ‘digital age’, as we increasingly live our lives online. Such dramatic shifts can occasionally mean that we have to expand the definition of certain rights. Often shortened to the ‘right to privacy’, Article 8 of the Convention provides that “everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence”. It would be nonsensical for ‘respect for one’s correspondence’ not to be extended from letters and phone calls to encompass our emails and Skype chats too.

How is our right to privacy being threatened?

There was briefly some good news in April 2014 when the European Court of Justice struck down the EU Data Retention Directive – which, in the UK, allowed the Home Secretary to force service providers (such as BT, Sky and Virgin) to retain communications data for 12 months. However, in response to this ruling the Government forced through ‘emergency’ legislation (the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act) with no chance for public debate or scrutiny. DRIPA not only ignored the Court’s judgment by re-legislating for blanket retention of communications data, it also granted the Government astonishing new surveillance powers.

By sweeping up everyone’s data, rather than just those who are suspected of criminal activity, the security services are turning us all into suspects. You might think that this is okay because you don’t do anything untoward online – nothing to hide, nothing to fear. Think of it this way: if you are suspected of a crime, police officers will need a warrant to search your home. When searching your home, those officers can only look for items specifically listed in the warrant. But with DRIPA you don’t have to be suspected of a crime for your online personal data to be gathered. There tends to be a lot more information about us online than we keep in our homes - and a lot of revealing information is potentially up for grabs. They don’t need a warrant and you will not be made aware of it. That is a frightening thought.

Is there a solution?

Liberty believes a more proportionate and effective solution would be a legal framework where surveillance is authorised by a judge and targeted at actual suspects rather than the population en masse. The choice between targeted surveillance on the basis of individual suspicion of criminality and blanket surveillance of the world population to serve broad – including political – ends should be a no-brainer. Of course there is no such thing as absolute privacy or, for that matter, absolute security but basic principles of legality, proportionality and judicial and parliamentary accountability should – and must – govern the use of intrusive surveillance. Privacy matters – and trust me, you won’t know what you’ve had till it’s gone.

How safe is our privacy online?

  • Shami Chakrabarti
  • Shami Chakrabarti has been Director of Liberty (The National Council for Civil Liberties) since September 2003. A Barrister by background, she is Chancellor of Oxford Brookes University and a Visiting Fellow of Nuffield College, Oxford in addition to being a Master of the Bench of Middle Temple.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.