When the European Court of Justice rightly invalidated an EU directive forcing telecommunications companies to store data for up to two years on all of their consumers, British Prime Minister David Cameron’s reaction was to countermand the spirit of the ruling and double down on the failed policies of mass surveillance.
Mr. Cameron plans to rush an “emergency data plan” through Parliament, requiring British companies to continue storing the time, date, location and recipient of every phone call, email and text message sent by British citizens for a year.
Even though the high court ruling was issued on April 8, Mr. Cameron seems to have realized the emergency only three months later, shortly before Parliament’s recess date. Rather than acknowledging the high court’s finding that such a policy “interferes in a particularly serious manner with the fundamental rights for private life and to the protection of personal data,” Mr. Cameron seems intent on codifying into British law a worrisome European directive.
The silver lining is that Mr. Cameron had to compromise with opposition parties and accept major reviews by Parliament of existing surveillance laws and the creation of an independent civil liberties board. It’s an incremental step toward curbing the insatiable appetite of the Government Communications Headquarters, the British equivalent to the U.S. National Security Agency.
But at a time when British press freedoms and civil liberties are eroding, reviews will not be enough. Unburdened by First Amendment-like guarantees, British authorities were able to force the destruction of The Guardian news organization’s hard drives and detain a journalist at an airport for nine hours under an anti-terror provision. For all of its flaws in reacting to the disclosures of former NSA contractor Edward J. Snowden, the American government never went that far.
It’s disquieting to see America’s No. 1 ally gradually slip into a permanent surveillance state. Parliament’s future reviews of British surveillance laws may restore protection for civil liberties, but they can’t come soon enough.