The government has released proposals to amend the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations and introduce a text message alert system that can be optimised in times of emergency. If implemented, some privacy rules will be weakened.
The change will allow mobile network operators to process and store the location data of individuals for a set period of time. Those within an affected area would be contacted to inform them of an emergency or the prospect of an emergency. The defined scenarios include: an event which threatens serious damage to human welfare; an event or situation which threatens serious damage to the environment; and war or terrorism which threatens serious damage to the security in the UK. These scenarios are broad enough to include natural weather events that have led to flooding in recent years.
This appears at first glance to be a necessary development to protect individuals; however, some of the details give rise for concern. Firstly, individuals will not be required to give consent and will not be given the opportunity to opt out of the service, with data processed and stored irrespective of the wishes of the affected individual. It is also not clear how long the data will be stored for and if it can be transferred to a third party to process.
Furthermore, it is unclear how the service will be restricted to geographic areas to ensure that individuals are not contacted unnecessarily. The need to prevent excessive and unsolicited messaging in respect of an emergency also needs to be considered in relation to the current focus on the prevention of unsolicited marketing calls and texts.
In light of the increase in risks of flooding and other natural disaster, and the potential risks of terrorism, many see the new policies as necessary and are happy for the relaxation of the privacy rules in these circumstances. However, it is vital to ensure the system is carefully structured with clear guidance on what and how data can be processed, and the messages will need to be carefully scripted so as not to cause unnecessary alarm or distress.