IPCO attends Human Rights in a Digital Age (HRBDT) Conference

Published on 30 July 2018

The Investigatory Powers Commissioner’s Office IPCO Interim Chief Executive Graham Webber gave an explanation of the organisation’s investigatory powers at Essex University’s Human Rights in a Digital Age (HRBDT) Conference in May 2018.

The conference involved a series of discussions on the challenges and opportunities presented by big data and associated technology from a human rights perspective.

In his speech, Graham explained the process for granting bulk investigatory powers to intelligence agencies under the UK’s Investigatory Powers (IP) Act 2016.

This involves four investigatory powers: bulk interception, bulk equipment interference, bulk acquisition of communications data and the retention of bulk personal data sets. The consideration for someone authorising the acquisition of the material is whether it is necessary to do so, having regard to the potential trade-off between the positive and negative impact of the acquisition.

One of the challenges faced by the oversight body is how to judge proportionality in the context of bulk. There are several considerations for this, but three were particularly relevant at the conference:

  1. The negative impact of an interference must be assessed, balancing the benefits of holding the data with the impact on privacy. More academic research would be helpful to quantify this impact.
  2. The positive impact on human rights of these bulk investigatory powers must be factored in.
  3. Foreseeability must be examined, looking at how the data will be used and how any internal authorisation works.

Graham noted that the IP Act focuses on authorising the collection of intelligence and does not give guidance regarding how analytical tools (such as artificial intelligence) could be applied data collected under the Act. IPCO is interested in wider views about how to judge these issues, and has previously sought submissions from civil society and the public on issues relevant to the proportionality of bulk powers.

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