New York Times
STRASBOURG, France — When Edward Snowden disclosed details of America’s huge surveillance program two years ago, many in Europe thought that the response would be increased transparency and stronger oversight of security services. European countries, however, are moving in the opposite direction. Instead of more public scrutiny, we are getting more snooping.
Pushed to respond to the atrocious attacks in Paris and Copenhagen and by the threats posed by the Islamic State to Europe’s internal security, several countries are amending their counterterrorism legislation to grant more intrusive powers to security services, especially in terms of mass electronic surveillance.
France recently adopted a controversial law on surveillance that permits major intrusions, without prior judicial authorization, into the private lives of suspects and those who communicate with them, live or work in the same place or even just happen to be near them.
The German Parliament adopted a new data retention law on Oct. 16 that requires telecommunications operators and Internet service providers to retain connection data for up to 10 weeks. And the British government intends to increase the authorities’ powers to carry out mass surveillance and bulk collection of intercepted data.
Meanwhile, Austria is set to discuss a draft law that would allow a new security agency to operate with reduced external control and to collect and store communication data for up to six years. The Netherlands is considering legislation allowing dragnet surveillance of all telecommunications, indiscriminate gathering of metadata, decryption and intrusion into the computers of non-suspects. And in Finland, the government is even considering changing the Constitution to weaken privacy protections in order to ease the adoption of a bill granting the military and intelligence services the power to conduct electronic mass surveillance with little oversight.
Governments now argue that to guarantee our security we have to sacrifice some rights. This is a specious argument. By shifting from targeted to mass surveillance, governments risk undermining democracy while pretending to protect it.
They are also betraying a long political and judicial tradition affording broad protection to privacy in Europe, where democratic legal systems have evolved to protect individuals from arbitrary interference by the state in their private and family life. The European Court of Human Rights has long upheld the principle that surveillance interferes with the right to privacy. Although the court accepts that the use of confidential information is essential in combating terrorist threats, it has held that the collection, use and storage of such information should be authorized only under exceptional and precise conditions, and must be accompanied by adequate legal safeguards and independent supervision. The court has consistently applied this principle for decades when it was called to judge the conduct of several European countries, which were combating domestic terrorist groups.