MI5 May Be Forced To Destroy ‘Unlawfully’ Handled Personal Data

By Aaron Walawalkar, News and Digital Editor 3 Feb 2020
The MI5 building near Lambeth Bridge. Credit: Open Government Licence.

Privacy groups have launched fresh legal challenge to pressure MI5 into destroying personal data which it has handled “unlawfully”.

A judicial review brought by Liberty and Privacy International also hopes to uncover the “full extent” of the domestic intelligence agency’s “unlawful” handling of people’s data.

The civil liberties groups argue that MI5’s data handling has breached our rights to privacy and freedom of expression – protected by Article 8 and Article 10 of the Convention of Human Rights.  

It is the latest development in a long-running legal battle between the government and privacy campaigners over the Investigatory Powers Act (IPA), also known as the “Snoopers Charter”, as well as the states’ powers to collect and store ordinary people’s data.


In documents disclosed to the High Court last summer, the investigatory powers commissioner Sir Adrian Fulford said MI5’s lack of compliance with relevant legislation was so serious that he would need to “be satisfied to a greater degree than usual” that the agency’s data handling regime was “fit for purpose”.

In one document, titled “Application for the removal of warrants by the Home Office”, Mr Fulford said that the manner in which the agency stores information was “undoubtedly unlawful” and that it has “inadequate control” over file-sharing and its computer databases.

In another document a senior MI5 official told Mr Fulford that the personal data collected by the intelligence agency might be stored in “ungoverned spaces”.

Liberty and Privacy International argue that MI5 had misled judges into thinking they were meeting the data handling obligations under IPA in order to obtain warrants.

Liberty lawyer Megan Goulding said: “It’s clear we need to know the extent of MI5’s lawlessness as these court cases have revealed how our surveillance laws are not fit for purpose as well as MI5’s disregard for our rights.

“MI5 has unprecedented and dangerous power to spy on any one of us and collect our sensitive private information.”

Caroline Wilson Palow, Privacy International’s legal director, added: “For more than a decade, MI5 has been building massive datasets by systematically collecting our personal information.

“Such practices are a serious interference with our right to privacy and threaten democratic values. We were promised that robust safeguards were in place so that such data would never be abused.

“Yet it turns out that those safeguards were in some cases illusory – that MI5 held significant data in ungoverned spaces without any effective oversight.”

The human rights groups demand that all surveillance warrants granted during this unlawful activity are quashed and all record of the public’s illegitimately obtained or retained data is destroyed.

The Home Office has been contacted for comment.