Legalization of “mass surveillance” by the European Court of Human Rights: what stands behind the judgment in the case of Big Brother Watch and Others v. the United Kingdom?

Available in Russian

Author: Vera Rusinova

DOI: 10.21128/2226-2059-2018-4-3-20

Keywords: European Court of Justice; mass surveillance; meta-data; private life; right to respect for private life; The European Court of Human Rights


On September 13, 2018, the European Court of Human Rights rendered a judgment in the case of Big Brother Watch and Others v. the United Kingdom, in which it examined whether the legal acts of the UK on the mass interception of communications and its meta-data, as well as the intelligence sharing regime with foreign intelligence agencies, corresponds to the Convention on the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. Having used an approach under which “while States enjoy a wide margin of appreciation in deciding what type of interception regime is necessary to protect national security, the discretion afforded to them in operating an interception regime must necessarily be narrower,” the Court thereby legalized the use of bulk interception of communications and meta-data. Assessing what content stands behind the acceptance of mass surveillance as not violating the Convention per se, this article demonstrates that the court, by acting both explicitly and implicitly, has exempted a number of key issues of these measures from the test on “legality”, “necessity in democratic society”, and “proportionality”, and has also significantly lowered the threshold of requirements in respect to other components of the bulk surveillance regime. This is an obvious reversal from a sufficiently progressive approach to the protection of the right for respect of private life and personal data against the background of ever-growing appetite of states for mass collection of data, which started to crystallize few years ago in jurisprudence of the ECHR and the Court of Justice of the EU. The article concludes with reflections on the political grounds that could have influenced the ECtHR’s application of the balancing method and predetermined its position on what is “necessary in a democratic society”.

About the author: Vera Rusinova is a Doctor of Sciences in Law, Professor, Faculty of Law, Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia.

Citation: Rusinova V. (2018) Legalizatsiya “massovoy slezhki” Evropeyskim Sudom po pravam cheloveka: chto stoit za postanovleniem po delu Big Brother Watch and Others v. the United Kingdom? [Legalization of “mass surveillance” by the European Court of Human Rights: what stands behind the judgment in the case of Big Brother Watch and Others v. the United Kingdom?]. Mezhdunarodnoe pravosudie, vol.8, no.4, pp.3–20. (In Russian).


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