On 26 February, the joint Brussels office, in conjunction with the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS) held a panel discussion at CEPS’ Brussels office to discuss the challenges of balancing fundamental human rights and freedoms of individuals in regard to their personal data with the needs of the police and security forces to intercept, use or otherwise analyse that data for the purposes of crime fighting or intelligence operations.

We were fortunate to benefit from the presence of several distinguished panellists in the field:

  • Douglas Wilson, Director of legal Affairs, (UK) Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ)
  • Dr Pavel Klimov, Chair of the Law Society England and Wales Technology Working Group
  • Dr Krisztina Huszti-Orban, Senior Legal Advisor to the UN Special Rapporteur on Counter-terrorism and Human Rights, Research Fellow and Lecturer in Law at the University of Minnesota Law School, Human Rights Center.

Overall the panellists agreed that the protection of human rights and the protection of the public should be complementary rather than competing priorities. In practical terms, this includes taking into account human rights and privacy concerns while drafting legislation that would permit use of citizens’ data.  The United nations had taken an interest in this area since 9/11, most recently with Security Council resolution 2396, which amongst other things called upon states to reinforce existing data sharing and a requirement to collect biometric data of air passengers. Member States are encouraged to share in formation, but with full respects for human rights (for political reasons, this was merely a recommendation not a binding obligation).

The panel also discussed the use of data by western intelligence agencies and how they endeavour to do so with due regard for human rights. In the UK for example, intelligence agencies are subject to a rigorous legal framework and both parliamentary and judicial oversight, most recently laid out in the Investigatory Powers Act 2016. In particular, the new “double lock” element requires an agency to obtain the approval of both the relevant Secretary of State and an independent judge in order to carry out many types of data collection.

The panel acknowledged that the very premise may be objectionable for some, but considered that the interception and use of data (including controversial bulk collection tactics) are essential tools in modern espionage and necessary for the protection of citizens.  Some on the panel were slightly more cautious as to the effectiveness of the safeguards (given they have only been in force for ab out a year) but overall the panel was of the opinion that the UK represents a fairly good balance of priorities.

The event was extremely well attended with the available tickets being snapped up in short order. The joint office would like to put on record its gratitude to CEPS for its hospitality and assistance, as well as to our panellists for taking the time and come to talk to us and the audience for their attention and insightful questions.