Surveillance state fears

Legislation is a “crude and inflexible tool” as far as protecting rights of privacy is concerned, Desmond Browne QC has warned.
Addressing a Conservative Party Conference fringe meeting, the Chairman of the Bar Council looked at the way the courts and Parliament have handled the balance between privacy rights and freedom of expression.

“I believe that the incremental development of the law by the judges has proved to be infinitely preferable to the big bang of legislation,” he said. “I think that the case law, European and domestic, which lays down that neither the right to privacy nor that to freedom of expression has presumptive pre-eminence over the other is the right approach.”

He posed the question of how the right to privacy from intrusion by our neighbours and the media is to be reconciled with the right to privacy from state surveillance. “A quarter of a century after 1984, the common law principles which govern protection of our privacy from intrusion by the media are just as relevant, indeed almost certainly more so, in relation to surveillance by the state,” he said.
“Here Parliament has intervened with legislation such as the Data Protection Act 1998 and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, but there is much in the view that such legislation has proved ineffective, and occasionally counter-productive, in the halt of Big Brother’s march. No wonder that back in 2004 the then Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, warned against our sleep-walking into ‘a surveillance society’.”

Desmond Browne was speaking at a fringe panel session, entitled “The Database State: Privacy under Threat?”