The Joint Committee on Human Rights has launched an inquiry into the right to privacy under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and the “Digital Revolution”. The inquiry will examine whether further safeguards to regulate the collection, use, tracking, retention and disclosure of personal data by private companies are required to protect human rights in the new digital age.

The key human right considered to be at risk is the right to private and family life under Article 8.

The Committee has also stated that freedom of expression (Article 10), freedom of assembly and association (Article 11) and prohibition of discrimination (Article 14) are also deemed to be at risk.

The Committee are now in the process of collecting written evidence of the threats posed to human rights by the processing of personal data by companies, and instances where those rights have been breached. The Committee have raised the following five questions and requested responses to be submitted online by 31 January 2019:

i. Are some uses of data by private companies so intrusive that states would be failing in their duty to protect human rights if they did not intervene? If so, what uses are too intrusive, and what rights are potentially at issue?

ii. Are consumers and individuals aware of how their data is being used, and do they have sufficient real choice to consent to this?

iii. What regulation is necessary and proportionate to protect individual rights without interfering unduly with freedom to use and develop new technology?

iv. If action is needed, how much can be done at national level, and how much needs international cooperation?

v. To what extent do international human rights standards, such as the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, have a role to play in preventing private companies from breaching individuals’ rights to privacy?

The announcement of this is inquiry does not come as a surprise, considering that while governments are responsible for protecting privacy rights under human rights law, it is private companies that have the greatest impact on such rights as the providers of digital infrastructure, products and services. Mass surveillance by government organisations, political and social media scandals, such as Cambridge Analytica, and the increasing occurrence of enormous personal data breaches has placed the issue squarely on the public agenda. This issue will only gather pace given the exponential progress being made in the field of Artificial Intelligence, which is likely to pose fundamental ethical and social dilemmas, in addition to many potential public and commercial benefits.