Landmark Mass Surveillance Ruling Affects Europeans Far Beyond UK Borders

The European Court of Human Rights has brought a decision of key concern to the collection of data in Europe. The ECHR has declared that the mass surveillance by the United Kingdom violated the rights to privacy and family life.

In 2013, Edward Snowden, a former US National Security Agency (NSA) analyst, revealed that the US Government had been using mass surveillance programs that allowed it to obtain personal communications on Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube and other platforms.

It later transpired that British intelligence services had been using similar programs since 2010, enabling them to access the day-to-day communications of hundreds of millions of people, some of which was shared with US intelligence.

Court rules that mass surveillance violates rights

In a recent judgment, the European Court of Human Rights declared that the mass surveillance by the British government violates the right to respect of privacy and family life, as set in Article 8, and the freedom of opinion, set in Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.”

The reasoning behind the judgement was that the data collection methods and the range of people being tracked was not sufficiently specific, and the rules on filtering, searching and selecting observed communications were missing. According to the judgement, the fact that not only the traffic data (e.g. the time of the call) but also the content of communications could be monitored (i.e. the text of emails could actually be read) amounts to a serious invasion of privacy. The Court stated that the operation of mass surveillance systems is not, in itself, an infringement, yet such a system must comply with strict criteria. The United Kingdom’s practice, however, exceeds the degree of interference that is "necessary in a democratic society".

HCLU cooperates to promote case but not totally satisfied with outcome

The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU) has been litigating to promote the case together with other European, American, African and Asian allies, notably the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Amnesty International, Liberty, and Privacy International. This unprecedented international cooperation shows that the significance of the case goes beyond what has happened in the United Kingdom, as all governments – although to different degrees – resort to mass surveillance. Therefore, the European Court of Human Rights’ judgement represents a significant step forward in the protection of privacy and the freedom of opinion. A case like this that sets a precedent may discourage governments from the unjustified extension of mass surveillance, even when they have the technology to do so.

However, HCLU is not totally satisfied with the ruling. The reason for this dissatisfaction is that the Strasbourg court did not find the limitless sharing of data from mass surveillance with the security services of other countries without any guarantees (as between the UK and the US) unlawful.

"We will keep fighting for not allowing mass surveillance to enjoy priority over the protection of privacy and the freedom of opinion," concluded HCLU its communication on the ECHR judgement.