Change in European Commission, UK government likely to bring action on privacy

While there appears to no shortage of consideration in the current administration or Congress for addressing privacy practices in some contexts in the United States, efforts to strengthen personal privacy protections seem to be gaining momentum in Europe. Since the formation of the new European Commission, whose term runs from 2010 to 2014, numerous public statements by commissioners have indicated the group’s interest in bringing privacy laws into the 21st century, potentially including revising or updating key data protection laws, such as the 1995 Personal Data Protection Directive. Commissioner Viviane Reding suggested earlier this year that unless social networking sites like Facebook continued to alter privacy practices in ways that fail to protect users’ personal information they could find themselves subject to new regulation. Those comments were partly in response to Facebook’s December 2009 changes to its default data sharing settings, changes which this week prompted the Article 29 Data Protection Working Party to write a letter to Facebook calling the company’s actions “unacceptable.”

The coalition government that resulted from the recent U.K. national election has also given notice that it will move forward with a radical privacy agenda, elements of which would include altering or halting several formerly government-backed initiatives. Notable among these are:

  • Limiting video surveillance, which is in widespread use in much of the U.K., and putting new regulations in place regarding the use of closed-circuit television (CCTV)
  • Scrapping the nascent national ID card system, which is still in an early limited roll-out stage, and was potentially on track to start over entirely when more technologically advanced cards were to be introduced in 2012
  • Abandoning the previous government’s plan to capture and maintain email and telecommunications records, potentially on everyone in Britain
  • Changing DNA record retention approaches throughout the U.K. to match policy in Scotland, where only DNA from convicted individuals is stored in databases; in England and Wales such data is kept for anyone arrested, regardless of the disposition of those arrests
  • Expansion of recently enacted freedom of information laws to provide greater transparency regarding government activities
  • Reforming libel laws to give more protection to publishers and protect free speech rights

The new coalition government appears mindful of the complexity of some of these privacy issues, and of the challenges in both political and technical terms with effecting such changes, but seems fully committed to reversing what it sees as inappropriate infringement of civil liberties under the former Labour government.