Europe’s top court confirms no mass surveillance without limits

Europe’s top court has delivered another slap-down to indiscriminate government mass surveillance regimes. In a ruling the CJEU has made it clear that national security concerns do not exclude EU Member States from the need to comply with general principles of EU law such as proportionality and respect for fundamental rights to privacy, data protection and freedom of expression.

However, the court has also allowed for derogations, saying that a pressing national security threat can justify limited and temporary bulk data collection and retention — capped to ‘what is strictly necessary’. While threats to public security or the need to combat serious crime may also allow for targeted retention of data provided it’s accompanied by ‘effective safeguards’ and reviewed by a court or independent authority.

The reference to the CJEU joined a number of cases, including legal challenges brought by rights advocacy group Privacy International to bulk collection powers baked into the UK’s Investigatory Powers Act; a La Quadrature du Net (and others’) challenge to a 2015 French decree related to specialized intelligence services; and a challenge to Belgium’s 2016 law on collection and retention of comms data.

Civil rights campaigners had been eagerly awaiting the judgements from the Grand Chamber, following an opinion by an advisor to the court in January which implied certain EU Member States’ surveillance regimes were breaching the law.

Of course, a government agency’s definition of how much data collection is ‘strictly necessary’ in a national security context (or, indeed, what constitutes an ‘effective safeguard’) may be rather different to the benchmark of civil rights advocacy groups — so it seems unlikely this ruling will be the last time the CJEU is asked to clarify where the legal limits of mass surveillance lie.