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By Stephen Gardner. Grab your tin hats because another human rights Euro-barney is on the way – about data retention.

The advocate-general of the European Union Court of Justice said in mid-December 2013 that the EU Data Retention Directive “constitutes a serious interference with the fundamental right of citizens to privacy.” The advocate-general's opinion must be confirmed by a court judgement, but usually they are.

The Data Retention Directive was adopted in 2006, part of a wave of post-9/11 EU security legislation that the United Kingdom enthusiastically pushed for. The Directive requires internet and telecoms operators to retain customers' usage data for up to two years and to provide it to law enforcement authorities on request.

Despite the UK government's claims of wanting to opt-out of EU justice initiatives, figures compiled by the European Commission show that UK law enforcement agencies are among the most prolific requesters of retained data. In 2011 and 2012, about 730,000 requests each year were made. Only Poland, with 1.3 million requests in 2011, and a whopping 1.8 million in 2012, got more carried away. Other EU countries made fewer requests – 345,000 in Spain (2010 figure, latest data available), and just 8,800 in Ireland and 5,500 in Finland (both 2012).

One reason for the high numbers in 2011 and 2012 in the UK was that “communications data supported a number of operations undertaken to ensure the [Olympic] Games were safe,” according to the Commission. The advocate-general found that retained communications data was useful – if not in line with privacy rights – because it “may make it possible to create a both faithful and exhaustive map of a large portion of a person’s conduct... or even a complete and accurate picture of his private identity.” What will UK law enforcers do if their tool is taken away?

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