European Human Rights Court Deals a Heavy Blow to the Lawfulness of Bulk Surveillance

In a seminal decision updating and consolidating its previous jurisprudence on surveillance, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights took a sideways swing at mass surveillance programs last week, reiterating the centrality of “reasonable suspicion” to the authorization process and the need to ensure interception warrants are targeted to an individual or premises. The decision in Zakharov v. Russia — coming on the heels of the European Court of Justice’s strongly-worded condemnation in Schrems of interception systems that provide States with “generalised access” to the content of communications — is another blow to governments across Europe and the United States that continue to argue for the legitimacy and lawfulness of bulk collection programs. It also provoked the ire of the Russian government, prompting an immediate legislative move to give the Russian constitution precedence over Strasbourg judgments.

The Grand Chamber’s judgment in Zakharov is especially notable because its subject matter — the Russian SORM system of interception, which includes the installation of equipment on telecommunications networks that subsequently enables the State direct access to the communications transiting through those networks — is similar in many ways to the interception systems currently enjoying public and judicial scrutiny in the United States, France, and the United Kingdom. Zakharov also provides a timely opportunity to compare the differences between UK and Russian law: Namely, Russian law requires prior independent authorization of interception measures, whereas neither the proposed UK law nor the existing legislative framework do.

The decision is lengthy and comprises a useful restatement and harmonization of the Court’s approach to standing (which it calls “victim status”) in surveillance cases, which is markedly different from that taken by the US Supreme Court. (Indeed, Judge Dedov’s separate but concurring opinion notes the contrast with Clapper v. Amnesty International.) It also addresses at length issues of supervision and oversight, as well as the role played by notification in ensuring the effectiveness of remedies. (Marko Milanovic discusses many of these issues here.)

For the purpose of the ongoing debate around the legitimacy of bulk surveillance regimes under international human rights law, however, three particular conclusions of the Court are critical.

Reasonable Suspicion Is Required

The Court took issue with legislation permitting the interception of communications for broad national, military, or economic security purposes (as well as for “ecological security” in the Russian case), absent any indication of the particular circumstances under which an individual’s communications may be intercepted. It said that such broadly worded statutes confer an “almost unlimited degree of discretion in determining which events or acts constitute such a threat and whether that threat is serious enough to justify secret surveillance” (para. 248).

Such discretion cannot be unbounded. It can be limited through the requirement for prior judicial authorization of interception measures (para. 249). Non-judicial authorities may also be competent to authorize interception, provided they are sufficiently independent from the executive (para. 258). What is important, the Court said, is that the entity authorizing interception must be “capable of verifying the existence of a reasonable suspicion against the person concerned, in particular, whether there are factual indications for suspecting that person of planning, committing or having committed criminal acts or other acts that may give rise to secret surveillance measures, such as, for example, acts endangering national security” (para. 260).

This finding clearly constitutes a significant threshold which a number of existing and pending European surveillance laws would not meet. For example, the existence of individualized reasonable suspicion runs contrary to the premise of signals intelligence programs where communications are intercepted in bulk; by definition, those programs collect information without any consideration of individualized suspicion. Yet the Court was clearly articulating the principle with national security-driven surveillance in mind, and with the knowledge that interception of communications in Russia is conducted by Russian intelligence on behalf of law enforcement agencies.

This element of the Grand Chamber’s decision distinguishes it from prior jurisprudence of the Court, namely the decisions of the Third Section in Weber and Saravia v. Germany (2006) and of the Fourth Section in Liberty and Ors v. United Kingdom (2008). In both cases, the Court considered legislative frameworks which enable bulk interception of communications. (In the German case, the Court used the term “strategic monitoring,” while it referred to “more general programmes of surveillance” in Liberty.) In the latter case, the Fourth Section sought to depart from earlier European Commission of Human Rights — the court of first instance until 1998 — decisions which developed the requirements of the law in the context of surveillance measures targeted at specific individuals or addresses. It took note of the Weber decision which “was itself concerned with generalized ‘strategic monitoring’, rather than the monitoring of individuals” and concluded that there was no “ground to apply different principles concerning the accessibility and clarity of the rules governing the interception of individual communications, on the one hand, and more general programmes of surveillance, on the other” (para. 63). The Court in Liberty made no mention of any need for any prior or reasonable suspicion at all.

In Weber, reasonable suspicion was addressed only at the post-interception stage; that is, under the German system, bulk intercepted data could be transmitted from the German Federal Intelligence Service (BND) to law enforcement authorities without any prior suspicion. The Court found that the transmission of personal data without any specific prior suspicion, “in order to allow the institution of criminal proceedings against those being monitored” constituted a fairly serious interference with individuals’ privacy rights that could only be remedied by safeguards and protections limiting the extent to which such data could be used (para. 125). (In the context of that case, the Court found that Germany’s protections and restrictions were sufficient.)

When you compare the language from these three cases, it would appear that the Grand Chamber in Zakharov is reasserting the requirement for individualized reasonable suspicion, including in national security cases, with full knowledge of the nature of surveillance considered by the Court in its two recent bulk interception cases.

Interception Authorizations Must Be Targeted

The requirement of reasonable suspicion is bolstered by the Grand Chamber’s subsequent finding in Zakharov that the interception authorization (e.g., the court order or warrant) “must clearly identify a specific person to be placed under surveillance or a single set of premises as the premises in respect of which the authorisation is ordered. Such identification may be made by names, addresses, telephone numbers or other relevant information” (para. 264). In making this finding, it references paragraphs from Liberty describing the broad nature of the bulk interception warrants under British law. In that case, it was this description that led the Court to find the British legislation possessed insufficient clarity on the scope or manner of exercise of the State’s discretion to intercept communications.

In one sense, therefore, the Grand Chamber seems to be retroactively annotating the Fourth Section’s Liberty decision so that it might become consistent with its decision in Zakharov. Without this revision, the Court would otherwise appear to depart to some extent — arguably, purposefully — from both Liberty and Weber.

Authorities Should Disclose Interception Warrants to Communications Service Providers

Finally, the Grand Chamber took issue with the direct nature of the access enjoyed by Russian intelligence under the SORM system. The Court noted that this contributed to rendering oversight ineffective, despite the existence of a requirement for prior judicial authorization. Absent an obligation to demonstrate such prior authorization to the communications service provider, the likelihood that the system would be abused through “improper action by a dishonest, negligent or overly zealous official” was quite high (para. 270). Accordingly, “the requirement to show an interception authorisation to the communications service provider before obtaining access to a person’s communications is one of the important safeguards against abuse by the law-enforcement authorities” (para. 269).

Again, this requirement arguably creates an unconquerable barrier for a number of modern bulk interception systems, which rely on the use of broad warrants to authorize the installation of, for example, fiber optic cable taps that facilitate the interception of all communications that cross those cables. In the United Kingdom, the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation David Anderson revealed in his essential inquiry into British surveillance in 2015, there are only 20 such warrants in existence at any time. Even if these 20 warrants are served on the relevant communications service providers upon the installation of cable taps, the nature of bulk interception deprives this of any genuine meaning, making the safeguard an empty one. Once a tap is installed for the purposes of bulk interception, the provider is cut out of the equation and can no longer play the role the Court found so crucial in Zakharov.

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The Zakharov case not only levels a serious blow at bulk, untargeted surveillance regimes, it suggests the Grand Chamber’s intention to actively craft European Court of Human Rights jurisprudence in a manner that curtails such regimes.

Any suggestion that the Grand Chamber’s decision was issued in ignorance of the technical capabilities or intentions of States and the continued preference for bulk interception systems should be dispelled; the oral argument in the case took place in September 2014, at a time when the Court had already indicated its intention to accord priority to cases arising out of the Snowden revelations. Indeed, the Court referenced such forthcoming cases in the fact sheet it issued after the Zakharov judgment was released. Any remaining doubt is eradicated through an inspection of the multiple references to the Snowden revelations in the judgment itself. In the main judgment, the Court excerpted text from the Director of the European Union Agency for Human Rights discussing Snowden, and in the separate opinion issued by Judge Dedov, he goes so far as to quote Edward Snowden: “With each court victory, with every change in the law, we demonstrate facts are more convincing than fear. As a society, we rediscover that the value of the right is not in what it hides, but in what it protects.”

The full implications of the Zakharov decision remain to be seen. However, it is likely we will not have to wait long to know whether the Grand Chamber intends to see the demise of bulk collection schemes; the three UK cases (Big Brother Watch & Ors v. United Kingdom, Bureau of Investigative Journalism & Alice Ross v. United Kingdom, and 10 Human Rights Organisations v. United Kingdom) pending before the Court have been fast-tracked, indicating the Court’s willingness to continue to confront the compliance of bulk collection schemes with human rights law. It is my hope that the approach in Zakharov hints at the Court’s conviction that bulk collection schemes lie beyond the bounds of permissible State surveillance. 

About the Author(s)

Carly Nyst

Human Rights Lawyer and Independent Consultant Follow her on Twitter (@carlynyst).