Interfering with the fundamental rights of practically the entire European population

In the Digital Rights Ireland case, the Grand Chamber of the CJEU has this week declared invalid the 2006 Directive which provides for the mass retention – and disclosure to policing and security authorities – of individuals’ online traffic data. It found this regime to be a disproportionate interference with privacy rights. Depending on your perspective, this is a major step forward for digital privacy, or a major step backwards in countering terrorism and serious crime. It probably introduces even more uncertainty in terms of the wider project of data protection reform at the EU level. Here is my synopsis of this week’s Grand Chamber judgment.

Digital privacy vs national security: a brief history

There is an overlapping mesh of rights under European law which aims to protect citizens’ rights with respect to their personal data – an increasingly important strand of the broader right to privacy. The Data Protection Directive (95/46/EC) was passed in 1995, when the internet was in its infancy. It provides that personal data must be processed (obtained, held, used, disclosed) fairly and lawfully, securely, for legitimate purposes and so on.

Then, as the web began to mature into a fundamental aspect of everyday life, a supplementary Directive was passed in 2002 (2002/58/EC) on privacy and electronic communications. It is about privacy, confidentiality and the free movement of electronic personal data in particular.

In the first decade of the 21st century, however, security objectives became increasingly urgent. Following the London bomings of 2005 in particular, the monitoring of would-be criminals’ web activity was felt to be vital to effective counter-terrorism and law enforcement. The digital confidentiality agenda needed to make space for a measure of state surveillance.

This is how Directive 2006/24 came to be. In a nutshell, it provides for traffic and location data (rather than content-related information) about individuals’ online activity to be retained by communications providers and made available to policing and security bodies. This data was to be held for a minimum of six months and a maximum of 24 months.

That Directive – like all others – is however subject to the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights. Article 7 of that Charter enshrines the right to respect for one’s private and family life, home and communications. Article 8 is about the right to the protection and fair processing of one’s personal data.

Privacy and Digital Rights Ireland prevail

Digital Rights Ireland took the view that the 2006 Directive was not compatible with those fundamental rights. It asked the Irish Courts to refer this to the CJEU. Similar references were made during different litigation before the Austrian Courts.

The CJEU gave its answer this week. In Digital Rights Ireland Ltd v Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources and Others (C‑293/12) joined with Kärntner Landesregierung and Others (C‑594/12), the Grand Chamber held the 2006 Directive to be invalid on the grounds of its incompatibility with fundamental privacy rights.

The Grand Chamber accepted that, while privacy rights were interfered with, this was in pursuit of compelling social objectives (the combatting of terrorism and serious crime). The question was one of proportionality. Given that fundamental rights were being interfered with, the Courts would allow the European legislature little lee-way: anxious scrutiny would be applied.

Here, in no particular order, are some of the reasons why the 2006 Directive failed its anxious scrutiny test (quotations are all from the Grand Chamber’s judgment). Unsurprisingly, this reads rather like a privacy impact assessment which data controllers are habitually called upon to conduct.

The seriousness of the privacy impact

First, consider the nature of the data which, under Articles 3 and 5 the 2006 Directive, must be retained and made available. “Those data make it possible, in particular, to know the identity of the person with whom a subscriber or registered user has communicated and by what means, and to identify the time of the communication as well as the place from which that communication took place. They also make it possible to know the frequency of the communications of the subscriber or registered user with certain persons during a given period.”

This makes for a serious incursion into privacy: “Those data, taken as a whole, may allow very precise conclusions to be drawn concerning the private lives of the persons whose data has been retained, such as the habits of everyday life, permanent or temporary places of residence, daily or other movements, the activities carried out, the social relationships of those persons and the social environments frequented by them.”

Second, consider the volume of data gathered and the number of people affected. Given the ubiquity of internet communications, the 206 Directive “entails an interference with the fundamental rights of practically the entire European population”.

Admittedly, the 2006 regime does not undermine “the essence” of data protection rights (because it is confined to traffic data – the contents of communications are not retained), and is still subject to data security rules (see the seventh data protection principle under the UK’s DPA 1998).

Nonetheless, this is a serious interference with privacy rights. It has objective and subjective impact: “it is wide-ranging, and it must be considered to be particularly serious… the fact that data are retained and subsequently used without the subscriber or registered user being informed is likely to generate in the minds of the persons concerned the feeling that their private lives are the subject of constant surveillance.”

Such a law, said the Grand Chamber, can only be proportionate if it includes clear and precise laws governing the scope of the measures and providing minimum safeguards for individual rights. The 2006 Directive fell short of those tests.

Inadequate rules, boundaries and safeguards

The regime has no boundaries, in terms of affected individuals: it “applies even to persons for whom there is no evidence capable of suggesting that their conduct might have a link, even an indirect or remote one, with serious crime”.

It also makes no exception for “persons whose communications are subject, according to rules of national law, to the obligation of professional secrecy”.

There are no sufficiently specific limits on the circumstances in which this can be accessed by security bodies, on the purposes to which that data can be put by those bodies, or the persons with whom those particular bodies may share the data.

There are no adequate procedural safeguards: no court or administrative authority is required to sign off the transfers.

There are also no objective criteria for justifying the retention period of 6-24 months.

The Grand Chamber’s conclusion

In summary, the Grand Chamber found that “in the first place, Article 7 of Directive 2006/24 does not lay down rules which are specific and adapted to (i) the vast quantity of data whose retention is required by that directive, (ii) the sensitive nature of that data and (iii) the risk of unlawful access to that data, rules which would serve, in particular, to govern the protection and security of the data in question in a clear and strict manner in order to ensure their full integrity and confidentiality. Furthermore, a specific obligation on Member States to establish such rules has also not been laid down…”

There was also an international transfer aspect to its concern: “in the second place, it should be added that that directive does not require the data in question to be retained within the European Union…”

This last point is of course highly relevant to another of the stand-offs between digital privacy and national security which looms in UK litigation, namely the post-Snowden litigation against security bodies.

Robin Hopkins @hopkinsrobin