CJEU sets limits on Mass Communications Surveillance – A Win for Privacy in the EU and Possibly Across the World

This post has been authored by Swati Punia

On 6th October, the European Court of Justice (ECJ/ Court) delivered its much anticipated judgments in the consolidated matter of C-623/17, Privacy International from the UK and joined cases from France, C-511/18, La Quadrature du Net and others, C-512/18, French Data Network and others, and Belgium, C-520/18, Ordre des barreaux francophones et germanophone and others (Collectively “Bulk Communications Surveillance Judgments”). 

In this post, I briefly discuss the Bulk Communication Surveillance Judgments, their significance for other countries and for India. 

Through these cases, the Court invalidated the disproportionate interference by Member States with the rights of their citizens, as provided by EU law, in particular the Directive on privacy and electronic communications (e-Privacy Directive) and European Union’s Charter of Fundamental Rights (EU Charter). The Court assessed the Member States’ bulk communications surveillance laws and practices relating to their access and use of telecommunications data. 

The Court recognised the importance of the State’s positive obligations towards conducting surveillance, although it noted that it was essential for surveillance systems to conform with the general principles of EU law and the rights guaranteed under the EU Charter. It laid down clear principles and measures as to when and how the national authorities could access and use telecommunications data (further discussed in the sections ‘The UK Judgment’ and ‘The French and Belgian Judgment’). It carved a few exceptions as well (in the joined cases of France and Belgium) for emergency situations, but held that such measures would have to pass the threshold of being serious and genuine (further discussed in the section ‘The French and Belgian Judgment’). 

The Cases in Brief 

The Court delivered two separate judgments, one in the UK case and one in the joined cases of France and Belgium. Since these cases had similar sets of issues, the proceedings were adjoined. The UK application challenged the bulk acquisition and use of telecommunications data by its Security and Intelligence Agencies (SIAs) in the interest of national security (as per the UK’s Telecommunication Act of 1984). The French and Belgian applications challenged the indiscriminate data retention and access by SIAs for combating crime. 

The French and Belgian applications questioned the legality of their respective data retention laws (numerous domestic surveillance laws which permitted bulk collection of telecommunication data) that imposed blanket obligations on Electronic Communications Service Providers (ECSP) to provide relevant data. The Belgian law required ECSPs to retain various kinds of traffic and location data for a period of 12 months. Whereas, the French law provided for automated analysis and real time data collection measures for preventing terrorism. The French application also raised the issue of providing a notification to the person under the surveillance. 

The Member States contended that such surveillance measures enabled them to inter alia, safeguard national security, prevent terrorism, and combat serious crimes. Hence, they claimed inapplicability of the e-Privacy Directive on their surveillance laws/ activities.

The UK Judgment

The ECJ found the UK surveillance regime unlawful and inconsistent with EU law, and specifically the e-Privacy Directive. The Court analysed the scope and scheme of the e-Privacy Directive with regard to exclusion of certain State purposes such as national and public security, defence, and criminal investigation. Noting the importance of such State purposes, it held that EU Member States could adopt legislative measures that restricted the scope of rights and obligations (Article 5, 6 and 9) provided in the e-Privacy Directive. However, this was allowed only if the Member States complied with the requirements laid down by the Court in Tele2 Sverige and Watson and Others (C-203/15 and C-698/15) (Tele2) and the e-Privacy Directive. In addition to these, the Court held that the EU Charter must be respected too. In Tele2, the ECJ held that legislative measures obligating ECSPs to retain data must be targeted and limited to what was strictly necessary. Such targeted retention had to be with regard to specific categories of persons and data for a limited time period. Also, the access to data must be subject to a prior review by an independent body.

The e-Privacy Directive ensures the confidentiality of electronic communications and the data relating to it (Article 5(1)). It allows ECSPs to retain metadata (context specific data relating to the users and subscribers, location and traffic) for various purposes such as billing, valued added services and security purposes. However, this data must be deleted or made anonymous, once the purpose is fulfilled unless a law allows for a derogation for State purposes. The e-Privacy Directive allows the Member States to derogate (Article 15(1)) from the principle of confidentiality and corresponding obligations (contained in Article 6 (traffic data) and 9 (location data other than traffic data)) for certain State purposes when it is appropriate, necessary and proportionate. 

The Court clarified that measures undertaken for the purpose of national security would not make EU law inapplicable and exempt the Member States from their obligation to ensure confidentiality of communications under the e-Privacy Directive. Hence, an independent review of surveillance activities such as data retention for indefinite time periods, or further processing or sharing, must be conducted for authorising such activities. It was noted that the domestic law at present did not provide for prior review, as a limit on the above mentioned surveillance activities. 

The French and Belgian Judgment

While assessing the joined cases, the Court arrived at a determination in similar terms as the UK case. It reiterated that the exception (Article 15(1) of the e-Privacy Directive) to the principle of confidentiality of communications (Article 5(1) of the e-Privacy Directive) should not become the norm. Hence, national measures that provided for general and indiscriminate data retention and access for State purposes were held to be incompatible with EU law, specifically the e-Privacy Directive.

The Court in the joined cases, unlike the UK case, allowed for specific derogations for State purposes such as safeguarding national security, combating serious crimes and preventing serious threats. It laid down certain requirements that the Member States had to comply with in case of derogations. The derogations should (1) be clear and precise to the stated objective (2) be limited to what is strictly necessary and for a limited time period (3) have a safeguards framework including substantive and procedural conditions to regulate such instances (4) include guarantees to protect the concerned individuals against abuse. They should also be subjected to an ‘effective review’ by a court or an independent body and must be in compliance of general rules and proportionality principles of EU law and the rights provided in the EU Charter. 

The Court held that in establishing a minimum threshold for a safeguards framework, the EU Charter must be interpreted along with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). This would ensure consistency between the rights guaranteed under the EU Charter and the corresponding rights guaranteed in the ECHR (as per Article 52(3) of the EU Charter).

The Court, in particular, allowed for general and indiscriminate data retention in cases of serious threat to national security. Such a threat should be genuine, and present or foreseeable. Real-time data collection and automated analysis were allowed in such circumstances. But the real-time data collection of persons should be limited to those suspected of terrorist activities. Moreover, it should be limited to what was strictly necessary and subject to prior review. It even allowed for general and indiscriminate data retention of IP addresses for the purpose of national security, combating serious crimes and preventing serious threats to public security. Such retention must be for a limited time period to what was strictly necessary. For such purposes, the Court also permitted ECSPs to retain data relating to the identity particulars of their customers (such as name, postal and email/account addresses and payment details) in a general and indiscriminate manner, without specifying any time limitations. 

The Court allowed targeted data retention for the purpose of safeguarding national security and preventing crime, provided that it was for a limited time period and strictly necessary and was done on the basis of objective and non-discriminatory factors. It was held that such retention should be specific to certain categories of persons or geographical areas. The Court also allowed, subject to effective judicial review, expedited data retention after the initial retention period ended, to shed light on serious criminal offences or acts affecting national security. Lastly, in the context of criminal proceedings, the Court held that it was for the Member States to assess the admissibility of evidence resulting from general and indiscriminate data retention. However, the information and evidence must be excluded where it infringes on the right to a fair trial. 

Significance of the Bulk Communication Surveillance Judgments

With these cases, the ECJ decisively resolved a long-standing discord between the Member States and privacy activists in the EU. For a while now, the Court has been dealing with questions relating to surveillance programs for national security and law enforcement purposes. Though the Member States have largely considered these programs outside the ambit of EU privacy law, the Court has been expanding the scope of privacy rights. 

Placing limitations and controls on State powers in democratic societies was considered necessary by the Court in its ruling in Privacy International. This decision may act as a trigger for considering surveillance reforms in many parts of the world, and more specifically for those aspiring to attain an EU adequacy status. India could benefit immensely should it choose to pay heed. 

As of date, India does not have a comprehensive surveillance framework. Various provisions of the Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019 (Bill), Information Technology Act, 2000, Telegraph Act, 1885, and the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 provide for targeted surveillance measures. The Bill provides for wide powers to the executive (under Clause 35, 36 and 91 of the Bill) to access personal and non-personal data in the absence of proper and necessary safeguards. This may cause problems for achieving the EU adequacy status as per Article 45 of the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) that assesses the personal data management rules of third-party countries. 

Recent news reports suggest that the Bill, which is under legislative consideration, is likely to undergo a significant overhaul. India could use this as an opportunity to introduce meaningful changes in the Bill as well as its surveillance regime. India’s privacy framework could be strengthened by adhering to the principles outlined in the Justice K.S. Puttaswamy v. Union of Indiajudgment and the Bulk Communications Surveillance Judgments.