The number of privacy cases fought in UK courts has doubled in the last five years, amid an explosion in the amount of personal data held and shared by government agencies, and retained by businesses.

In the year to 31 May 2014, there were 56 cases in the High Court, up from 28 five years ago, according to figures from legal information provider Thomson Reuters.

Privacy laws have come under the spotlight with the growth of the internet and other technology. Last week, president of the Supreme Court Lord Neuberger indicated that privacy laws, first introduced by the Human Rights Act in 2000, may have to be overhauled. He alluded to the ‘astonishing development’ in IT that enables information to be transmitted and received across the world, and clandestinely recorded, misreported or doctored.

‘It undermines the rule of law if laws are unenforceable,’ he said. ’There is no doubt that these technological developments give rise to enormous challenges for people involved in the law and people involved in the media.’

The European Court of Justice ruled in May that internet search engines are responsible as data controllers for the content of links thrown up by searches, and that (on request) they must remove results that are irrelevant and outdated.

Facebook has also faced a number of claims relating to privacy and data protection across Europe over how users’ data is tracked and commercialised – the latest being a class action through the Austrian courts.

Thomson Reuters said a high proportion of the cases this year involve claims against public institutions, particularly the police. These have included stop and search complaints.
In one high-profile example of the police’s invasion of privacy, it was revealed that undercover police officers secretly gathered intelligence over two decades on Doreen Laurence and 18 families fighting to get justice from the police over deaths in custody and other matters.

Jonathan Cooper, barrister at London’s Doughty Street Chambers, said: ‘Growth in privacy law has partly been a response to the explosion of personal data held and shared, whether in and between government departments or within businesses.

Improved data storage and search technology allows personal data on citizens to be much more easily shared and transferred between government departments, he added.

He said: ‘The rapid growth in the commercialisation of personal data has created a lot of new threats to people’s privacy. When businesses cross the line, people feel strongly enough to enforce their privacy rights through the courts.’