The number of privacy cases being brought before the courts in the UK has increased rapidly following the huge growth in the amount of personal information held by organisations.
What Lord Neuberger deemed the “astonishing development” in information technology (IT) has given rise to the situation where personal information is easily collected and shared by large organisations, such as giant tech firms and government departments.
This has important implications for individuals, businesses, the courts and the legal profession.
Personal Data and Loss of Privacy
Technology developments have enabled the transmittance of information across the world at an instant. While this has had tremendous benefits it also carries with it commensurate risks – the rapid online distribution of celebrities’ naked photos following their theft from Apple’s iCloud database is just one high-profile example.
Privacy issues can arise from the transmission of personal data which might have been clandestinely obtained but they can also arise from the illegal use of personal data which might have been collected legitimately.
Technological advances in the storage and search of the large amounts of information that is collected continuously entail the largest potential privacy risks. Indeed, coupled with the increasing commercialisation of personal data, under the umbrella term “big data”, the potential for breaches of privacy laws has only increased.
Indeed, the Ministry of Justice was recently fined £140k after sending the personal details of over 1,000 prisoners to three prisoner’s families.
Data Growth Spurs Privacy Litigation and Privacy Complaints
As a result of the mass collection of personal data and the increase in its misuse, privacy litigation is on the rise. In the year to May 2014 56 cases were heard in the High Court, a significant increase on the 28 cases heard five years ago.
Furthermore, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) announced a record number of lodged data complaints, with 15,492 resolved in the year to July 2014, a 10% rise on the previous year. Complaint resolutions led to £1.97m worth of fines being handed down to companies found to have breached data protection rules.
The rise in privacy cases follows a European Court ruling in May that internet search engines are responsible, as data controllers, for the content of links resulting from keyword searches; the basis for the so called ‘right to be forgotten’ rules. Leading tech firms Google and Microsoft are among those most affected, the former being forced to employ a team of lawyers to manage ‘takedown’ requests for unlawful results.
In addition, Facebook currently faces a widely-publicised class action lawsuit in the Austrian courts, in relation to alleged data protection breaches.
It is not just the private sector that is feeling the heat of privacy litigation though; public institutions have made up a large proportion of the privacy cases in 2014. In particular, the police have been subjected to numerous inquiries and evidence requests. These have followed scandals such as the secret evidence gathering against Doreen Laurence.
The increase in privacy law cases has led to privacy laws in themselves being questioned. There are serious concerns that the law is failing to regulate the fast-moving technology scene effectively, leaving individuals’ personal data increasingly vulnerable.