Mass Surveillance and the Right to Privacy: Adding Nuance to the Schrems Case

Last week’s post by Megan Graham is certainly a welcome contribution in explaining the implications of the Max Schrems case by the European Union Court of Justice, and specifically how it relates to the Safe Harbor arrangement between the US and the EU.

Let me add a different perspective: Irrespective of its consequences for Safe Harbor, last week’s ruling is hugely important on a more general level, namely for the understanding of what the right to privacy entails in Europe and what this means for mass surveillance. Through its ruling in Max Schrems the EU’s highest court has established that:

  • Mere access by public authorities to confidential or group-specific communications data constitutes an intrusion into the right to privacy, even without any further processing of that data; and
  • While indiscriminate intrusion into “metadata” may constitute a particularly serious intrusion into the right to privacy, access to “content” data will affect the essence of the right to privacy.

These findings were made under Article 7 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, a broad provision on the right to respect for one’s private life. This provision of the EU Charter, which is a part of the foundational treaty framework of the European Union, is almost identical to Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, a treaty legally binding for broader Europe and routinely a part of domestic legal orders. It remains to be seen whether the guardian of the latter framework, the European Court of Human Rights, will also be courageous enough to determine that indiscriminate mass surveillance that provides access to “content” data breaches the essential core of the right to privacy.

The highest EU court already took that bold step. One of the most important implications of identifying government access to content as breaching the essence of the right to privacy, is that it negates the need for a proportionality assessment. Measures that compromise the essence of privacy have already crossed a red line, and there is no need for any further “balancing” between privacy and security. Therefore, the Max Schrems ruling is a huge blow to many of the current methods of electronic mass surveillance, including those practiced by the US and several European countries (including the United Kingdom).

Several additional points from my earlier post in Verfassungsblog about this case are also worth noting. First, the EU court did not really dwell on the separate Article 8 provision of the EU Charter on Fundamental Rights, concerning the right to the protection of personal data. This was perhaps because that provision is triggered by the “processing” of data, while the general privacy (Article 7) impact comes into play through mere “access.” Another point is that while it was easy to establish the jurisdiction of the EU court over data transfers from Europe to Facebook’s servers in the US, it may be much harder to bring a case before that court concerning “upstream” methods of mass surveillance, such as the NSA’s tapping of transatlantic fiber optic telecommunications cables. Perhaps most importantly, the substantive ruling in the Schrems case is formulated in a way that it would apply to any method of mass surveillance that gives public authorities access to the content of ordinary people’s private communications, including communications intended for a group of people but not for the authorities. Hence, the ruling is a major contribution as to what the right to privacy substantively means in Europe. 

About the Author(s)

Martin Scheinin

Professor of Public International Law at the European University Institute, former United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Counter-Terrorism (2005-2011). Follow him on Twitter (@MartinScheinin).