As a result of privacy laws becoming more widespread, the number of reported privacy cases being fought in the UK courts has doubled in five years to 56 cases in the last year (year-end being May 31), up from 28 five years ago.

Whilst the use of privacy law was once restricted to celebrities to prevent the publication of scandalous stories about their personal lives, it now has much broader significance – impacting how government agencies deal with the mass of data that they are accumulating on citizens through to the more than 12,000 Google “right to be forgotten” requests submitted by UK residents.

The right to privacy was introduced by the Human Rights Act, which came into force in 2000, and has been extended by the use of data protection arguments in cases such as Naomi Campbell v MGN.

“Growth in privacy law has partly been a response to the explosion of personal data held on the internet and the data collected and shared between government departments,” comments Jonathan Cooper, barrister at London’s Doughty Street Chambers and editor of European Human Rights Law Review, published by Thomson Reuters. “Improved data storage and search technology allows personal data on citizens to be much more easily shared and transferred between government departments. The increased use of privacy law is partly driven by concerns amongst consumers over how much personal information is being gathered up and shared in the growth of Big Data.”

Concern growing over personal information held by big internet and social media companies
Cooper says that the rise in reported privacy cases is partly caused by the growth of businesses that store vast amounts of personal data.

As well as the cases heard in the UK courts relating to Facebook and Google, UK residents have also been impacted by the recent European Union court ruling over “the right to be forgotten.” This allows individuals to ask Google to erase online links to outdated or irrelevant information that could potentially undermine their privacy. The ruling means that Europeans now have the right to request that links be removed from Google’s search engine.

Facebook has faced a number of claims relating to privacy/data protection across Europe over how users’ data is tracked and commercialized – with the latest being a class action through the Austrian courts.

“The rapid growth in the commercialization of personal data has created a lot of new threats to people’s privacy,” adds Cooper. “When businesses cross the line, people feel strongly enough to enforce their privacy rights through the courts.”

Individuals using privacy to force public bodies to remove inaccurate and outdated data
A high proportion of the cases this year were made against public bodies, with a particular concentration of cases made against the police. These included stop and search complaints as well as concerns over data held by the police.

In one high profile example of the police’s invasion of privacy, recently it was revealed that undercover police officers secretly gathered intelligence over two decades on Doreen Laurence and 18 families fighting to get justice from the police over deaths in custody and other matters.

“Recent revelations over police surveillance of individuals campaigning against the police and into Doreen Laurence show that there is a concern over whether the privacy of some individuals is being breached unnecessarily,” says Cooper. “Any attempt to dismantle the UK’s human rights system, including the right to privacy, would be a big backwards step for the freedom of UK citizens.” 

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