Surveillance powers to be kept alive via DRIP

The legal framework underpinning state surveillance of individuals’ private communications is in turmoil, and it is not all Edward Snowden’s fault. As I write this post, two hugely important developments are afoot.


The first is the challenge by Privacy International and others to the Prism/Tempora surveillance programmes implemented by GCHQ and the security agencies. Today is day 2 of the 5-day hearing before the Investigatory Powers Tribunal. To a large extent, this turmoil was unleashed by Snowden.

DRIP – the background

The second strand of the turmoil is thanks to Digital Rights Ireland and others, whose challenge to the EU’s Data Retention Directive 2006/24 was upheld by the CJEU in April of this year. That Directive provided for traffic and location data (rather than content-related information) about individuals’ online activity to be retained by communications providers for a period of 6-24 months and made available to policing and security bodies. In the UK, that Directive was implemented via the Data Retention (EC Directive) Regulations 2009, which mandated retention of communications data for 12 months.

In Digital Rights Ireland, the CJEU held the Directive to be invalid on the grounds of incompatibility with the privacy rights enshrined under the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights. Strictly speaking, the CJEU’s judgment (on a preliminary ruling) then needed to be applied by the referring courts, but in reality the foundation of the UK’s law fell away with the Digital Rights Ireland judgment. The government has, however, decided that it needs to maintain the status quo in terms of the legal powers and obligations which were rooted in the invalid Directive.

On 10 July 2014, the Home Secretary made a statement announcing that this gap in legal powers was to be plugged on a limited-term basis. A Data Retention and Investigatory Powers (DRIP) Bill would be put before Parliament, together with a draft set of regulations to be made under the envisaged Act. If passed, these would remain in place until the end of 2016, by which time longer-term solutions could be considered. Ms May said this would:

“…ensure, for now at least, that the police and other law enforcement agencies can investigate some of the criminality that is planned and takes place online. Without this legislation, we face the very prospect of losing access to this data overnight, with the consequence that police investigations will suddenly go dark and criminals will escape justice. We cannot allow this to happen.”

Today, amid the ministerial reshuffle and shortly before the summer recess, the Commons is debating DRIP on an emergency basis.

Understandably, there has been much consternation about the extremely limited time allotted for MPs to debate a Bill of such enormous significance for privacy rights (I entitled my post on the Digital Rights Ireland case “Interfering with the fundamental rights of practically the entire European population”, which is a near-verbatim quote from the judgment).

DRIP – the data retention elements

The Bill is short. A very useful summary can be found in the Standard Note from the House of Commons Library (authored by Philippa Ward).

Clause 1 provides power for the Secretary of State to issue a data retention notice on a telecommunications services provider, requiring them to retain certain data types (limited to those set out in the Schedule to the 2009 Regulations) for up to 12 months. There is a safeguard that the Secretary of State must consider whether it is “necessary and proportionate” to give the notice for one or more of the purposes set out in s22(2) of RIPA.

Clause 2 then provides the relevant definitions.

The Draft Regulations explain the process in more detail. Note in particular regulation 5 (the matters the Secretary of State must consider before giving a notice) and regulation 9 (which provides for oversight by the Information Commissioner of the requirements relating to integrity, security and destruction of retained data).

DRIP – the RIPA elements

DRIP is also being used to clarify (says the government) or extend (say some critics) RIPA 2000. In this respect, as commentators such as David Allen Green have pointed out, it is not clear why the emergency legislation route is necessary.

Again, to borrow the nutshells from the House of Commons Library’s Standard Note:

Clause 3 amends s5 of RIPA regarding the Secretary of State’s power to issue interception warrants on the grounds of economic well-being.

Clause 4 aims to clarify the extra-territorial reach of RIPA in in relation to both interception and communications data by adding specific provisions. This confirms that requests for interception and communications data to overseas companies that are providing communications services within the UK are subject to the legislation.

Clause 5 clarifies the definition of “telecommunications service” in RIPA to ensure that internet-based services, such as webmail, are included in the definition.


The Labour front bench is supporting the Coalition. A number of MPs, including David Davis and Tom Watson, have been vociferous in their opposition (see for example the proposed amendments tabled by Watson and others here). So too have numerous academics and commentators. I won’t try to link to all of them here (as there are too many). Nor can I link to a thorough argument in defence of DRIP (as I have not been able to find one). For present purposes, an excellent forensic analysis comes from Graham Smith at Cyberleagle.

I don’t seek to duplicate that analysis. It is, however, worth remembering this: the crux of the CJEU’s judgment was that the Directive authorised such vast privacy intrusions that stringent safeguards were required to render it proportionate. In broad terms, that proportionately problem can be fixed in two ways: reduce the extent of the privacy intrusions and/or introduce much better safeguards. DRIP does not seek to do the former. The issue is whether it offers sufficient safeguards for achieving an acceptable balance between security and privacy.

MPs will consider that today and Peers later this week. Who knows? – courts may even be asked for their views in due course.

Robin Hopkins @hopkinsrobin

Legal analysis of individual’s situation is not their personal data, says Advocate General

YS, M and S were three people who applied for lawful residence in the Netherlands. The latter two had their applications granted, but YS’ was refused. All three wanted to see a minute drafted by an official of the relevant authority in the Netherlands containing internal legal analysis on whether to grant them residence status. They made subject access requests under Dutch data protection law, the relevant provisions of which implement Article 12 of Directive 95/46/EC. They were given some of the contents of the minutes, but the legal analysis was withheld. This was challenged before the Dutch courts. Questions were referred to the CJEU on the application of data protection law to such information. In Joined Cases C‑141/12 and C‑372/12, Advocate General Sharpston has given her opinion, which the CJEU will consider before giving its judgment next year. Here are some important points from the AG’s opinion.

The definition of personal data

The minutes in question contained inter alia: the name, date of birth, nationality, sex, ethnicity, religion and language of the applicant; information about the procedural history; information about declarations made by the applicant and documents submitted; the applicable legal provisions and an assessment of the relevant information in the light of the applicable law.

Apart from the latter – the legal advice – the AG’s view is that this information does come within the meaning of personal data under the Directive. She said this:

“44. In general, ‘personal data’ is a broad concept. The Court has held that the term covers, for example, ‘the name of a person in conjunction with his telephone coordinates or information about his working conditions or hobbies’, his address, his daily work periods, rest periods and corresponding breaks and intervals, monies paid by certain bodies and the recipients, amounts of earned or unearned incomes and assets of natural persons.

45. The actual content of that information appears to be of no consequence as long as it relates to an identified or identifiable natural person. It can be understood to relate to any facts regarding that person’s private life and possibly, where relevant, his professional life (which might involve a more public aspect of that private life). It may be available in written form or be contained in, for example, a sound or image.”

The suggestion in the final paragraph is that the information need not have a substantial bearing on the individual’s privacy in order to constitute their personal data.

The AG also observed that “Directive 95/46 does not establish a right of access to any or every document or file in which personal data are listed or used” (paragraph 71). This resonates with the UK’s long-established Durant ‘notions of assistance’.

Legal analysis is not personal data

AG Sharpston’s view, however, was that the legal analysis of the individuals’ situations did not constitute their personal data. Her reasoning – complete with illustrative examples – is as follows:

“55. I am not convinced that the phrase ‘any information relating to an identified or identifiable natural person’ in Directive 95/46 should be read so widely as to cover all of the communicable content in which factual elements relating to a data subject are embedded.

56. In my opinion, only information relating to facts about an individual can be personal data. Except for the fact that it exists, a legal analysis is not such a fact. Thus, for example, a person’s address is personal data but an analysis of his domicile for legal purposes is not.

57. In that context, I do not find it helpful to distinguish between ‘objective’ facts and ‘subjective’ analysis. Facts can be expressed in different forms, some of which will result from assessing whatever is identifiable. For example, a person’s weight might be expressed objectively in kilos or in subjective terms such as ‘underweight’ or ‘obese’. Thus, I do not exclude the possibility that assessments and opinions may sometimes fall to be classified as data.

58. However, the steps of reasoning by which the conclusion is reached that a person is ‘underweight’ or ‘obese’ are not facts, any more than legal analysis is.”

Interestingly, her conclusion did touch upon the underlying connection between personal data and privacy. At paragraph 60, she observed that “… legal analysis as such does not fall within the sphere of an individual’s right to privacy. There is therefore no reason to assume that that individual is himself uniquely qualified to verify and rectify it and ask that it be erased or blocked. Rather, it is for an independent judicial authority to review the decision for which that legal analysis was prepared.”

In any event, legal analysis does not amount to “processing” for data protection purposes

The AG considered that legal analysis such as this was neither ‘automatic’ nor part of a ‘relevant filing system’. “Rather, it is a process controlled entirely by individual human intervention through which personal data (in so far as they are relevant to the legal analysis) are assessed, classified in legal terms and subjected to the application of the law, and by which a decision is taken on a question of law. Furthermore, that process is neither automatic nor directed at filing data” (paragraph 63).

Entitlement to data, but not in a set form

The AG also says that what matters is that individuals are provided with their data – data controllers are not, under the Directive, required to provide it in any particular form. For example, they can extract or transcribe rather than photocopy the relevant minute:

“74. Directive 95/46 does not require personal data covered by the right of access to be made available in the material form in which they exist or were initially recorded. In that regard, I consider that a Member State has a considerable margin of discretion to determine, based on the individual circumstances in case, the form in which to make personal data accessible.

75. In making that assessment, a Member State should take account of, in particular: (i) the material form(s) in which that information exists and can be made available to the data subject, (ii) the type of personal data and (iii) the objectives of the right of access.”

If the legal analysis is personal data, then the exemptions do not apply

Under the Directive, Article 12 provides the subject access right. Article 13 provides exemptions. The AG’s view was that if, contrary to her opinion, the legal analysis is found to be personal data, then exemptions from the duty to communicate that data would not be available. Of particular interest was her view concerning the exemption under Article 13(1)(g) for the “protection of the data subject or of the rights and freedoms of others”. Her view is that (paragraph 84):

“the protection of rights and freedoms of others (that is, other than the data subject) cannot be read as including rights and freedoms of the authority processing personal data. If a legal analysis is to be categorised as personal data, that must be because it is related to the private interests of an identified or identifiable person. Whilst the public interest in protecting internal advice in order to safeguard the administration’s ability to exercise its functions may indeed compete with the public interest in transparency, access to such advice cannot be restricted on the basis of the first of those two interests, because access covers only what falls within the private interest.”

If the Court agrees with the AG’s view, the case will be an important addition to case law offering guidance on the limits of personal data. It would also appear to limit, at least as regards the exemption outlined above, the data controller’s ability to rely on its own interests or on public interests to refuse subject access requests. That said, there is of course the exemption under Article 9 of the Directive for freedom of expression.

Robin Hopkins @hopkinsrobin