European Court of Human Rights Rules for Privacy

In a lengthy litigation process, the European Court of Human Rights has recognized that the surveillance of telephone communication tramples privacy rights:

“Government phone-tapping practices have violated the right to privacy, the European court of human rights ruled yesterday. It described the legal discretion granted to the government for intercepting communications as “virtually unfettered”. Procedures covering the use and storage of intercepted material should be set out in a form which is open to public scrutiny and knowledge, it said.”

link: Security: UK phonetap laws breach privacy

This ruling places limitations on measures that can be taken in the name of security. It will have repercussions in countries like Sweden, which has passed recent legislation allowing email and telephone surveillance.

The matter of public scrutiny is fundamental tenet for accountability. For example, it is easy to be placed on a security / terrorist watch list. Who is on the list is classified information. How one removes oneself from such a government security data base remains mysterious and unspecified. South African President Nelson Mandela was on a U.S. security check list. It required President Bush’s intervention to have President Mandela removed from that list.

The argument is that public scrutiny undermines security. The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that security does not always trump privacy rights and civil liberties.

Catherine Forsythe