Civil liberties at risk as agencies seek new powers to deal with cloud communications

February 26, 2016

Julia Hörnle, Professor of Internet Law at Queen Mary University of London, was speaking at her inaugural lecture 'Unclaimed territories in the clouds'. The lecture outlined the "fundamental conflict between the internet as a trans-border communications technology - and jurisdiction".

Professor Hörnle said that while the growth of platforms like WhatsApp and Skype have transformed global communications, the rapid adoption of cloud-based services has raised very serious challenges for the law, civil liberties, and intelligence gathering. These technologies mean that existing powers to intercept terrorists' communications may not work and the relevant communication service providers are based overseas.

She said: "Jurisdiction as a state's power to exclusively regulate and govern activities on its territory clashes with the internet - where information can seamlessly and without notice cross political and geographical borders."

She said that traditionally, law enforcement is strictly limited to a state's territory and must take place within a state's borders. This is based on the principle of "non-interference with a state's domestic affairs and respecting the territorial integrity of another state". Professor Hörnle said that this principle may not survive the age of .

"If the police seize a computer under a search and seizure procedure, the computer may be 'empty' in the sense that all relevant documents are stored with a cloud service such as Dropbox or GoogleDocs. Existing law enforcement powers may be insufficient to deal with these new forms of communications and that's why agencies the world over are seeking new investigatory powers," said Professor Hörnle.

She made her remarks as the Investigatory Powers Bill, introduced in November 2015, is debated in the UK Parliament. The law would give enforcement and intelligence services wide powers to access communications content and data.

She said: "From a jurisdictional point of view the interesting issue here is that frequently it will be unclear where the equipment is situated and therefore the question arises whether interference with equipment in the cloud is in fact extraterritorial."

Professor Hörnle warned that the "extraterritorial assertion of jurisdiction over foreign based computers raises serious issues about the rule of law."

Explore further: Robust consumer protection laws needed to close internet loopholes

Related Stories

Canada unveils new cyber monitoring rules

February 14, 2012

Canada's government Tuesday introduced a bill to give law enforcement authorities sweeping powers to probe online communications, but the move sparked criticism about threats to privacy.

Lawmakers say UK's draft online spying law needs changes

February 11, 2016

The British government is under pressure to amend a contentious Internet surveillance bill after a parliamentary committee said plans to make service providers retain all users' data have not been adequately thought through.

Recommended for you

Inferring urban travel patterns from cellphone data

August 29, 2016

In making decisions about infrastructure development and resource allocation, city planners rely on models of how people move through their cities, on foot, in cars, and on public transportation. Those models are largely ...

How machine learning can help with voice disorders

August 29, 2016

There's no human instinct more basic than speech, and yet, for many people, talking can be taxing. 1 in 14 working-age Americans suffer from voice disorders that are often associated with abnormal vocal behaviors - some of ...

Sponge creates steam using ambient sunlight

August 22, 2016

How do you boil water? Eschewing the traditional kettle and flame, MIT engineers have invented a bubble-wrapped, sponge-like device that soaks up natural sunlight and heats water to boiling temperatures, generating steam ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.