European Court of Human Rights: Sweden’s mass surveillance violates right to privacy

Landmark privacy ruling by Europe’s top human rights court: Sweden’s mass surveillance activities violate right to privacy 

Centrum för rättvisa has won a landmark victory before the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights. 

Earlier today, the Court delivered its long-awaited judgment in Centrum för rättvisa v Sweden, finding that Sweden’s signals intelligence regime violated the right to privacy and the protection of correspondence under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. 

In 2008, the Swedish Parliament conferred controversial new powers on the National Defence Radio Establishment (or “FRA”) to conduct mass surveillance of electronic communications flowing in and out of Sweden for foreign intelligence purposes. While limited privacy safeguards were subsequently introduced, these did little to allay privacy concerns, especially following revelations by Edward Snowden in 2013 of the scale and intensity of mass surveillance activities being carried out by the United States and several of its European allies.  

While the Court recognised that the bulk interception of electronic communication is of vital importance to national security, it found several shortcomings with Sweden’s privacy safeguards. Crucially, intercepted communications could be transferred abroad to foreign partners without any requirement to consider the privacy implications of doing so, or to ensure that the foreign recipient employed an acceptable minimum level of safeguards. The Swedish system also lacked a sufficient ex post facto control mechanism to ensure proper compliance and complaints handling. 

The Court also delivered judgment today in Big Brother Watch and Others v. United Kingdom finding that the UK’s bulk interception regime also violated Article 8 of the Convention. Together, both cases represent a major milestone in the development of legal protections for privacy and correspondence during secret surveillance exercises. 

“Our position has always been clear”, explained Fredrik Bergman, Head of Centrum för rättvisa. “Surveillance activities play a vital role in keeping us safe, but they must be conducted with robust safeguards for privacy and other fundamental rights. We are delighted that the Grand Chamber has taken this opportunity to set a clear path forward for the standard of protection that is expected in Sweden, Europe, and beyond.” 

The Court’s judgement and press release are available.

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