Russia’s Covert Surveillance System Sounds A Little Too Familiar
Opinion

Russia’s Covert Surveillance System Sounds A Little Too Familiar

By Anna Dannreuther, Writer 6 May 2016
Privacy

Today we shared campaign organisation Liberty’s video on the public’s attitude on surveillance as part of its campaign against the Investigatory Powers Bill.

In this opinion piece we hear from the European Human Rights Advocacy Centre (EHRAC) about a recent case in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) against Russia, in which they represented the applicant, Russian journalist Mr. Zakharov.

Mr Zakharov’s story

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Roman Zakharov is a journalist at the Glasnost Defence Foundation in St. Petersburg, which monitors respect for journalists’ rights and the right to freedom of speech. In 2003, he sued three mobile network operators and two Government agencies. He argued that the Russian law requirement for mobile phone operators to install equipment enabling remote interception of his (and others’) telephone communications without permission from a judge violated the right to privacy.

When his case was dismissed in Russia, he turned to the ECHR to complain of a violation of his right to privacy. He argued that there were insufficient safeguards in the Russian law to prevent unauthorised widespread monitoring by the Federal Security Service (the successor to the Soviet-era KGB). He also complained  that parts of the Russian law allowing mass surveillance were secret and had never been made public.

What did the Court find?

The ECHR found that Mr. Zakharov’s (and other Russian citizens’) rights to privacy had been violated. It said that even though government surveillance and interception of communications may be necessary in certain circumstances, the Russian legislation in question meant that people’s communications could be intercepted without any real justification.

The Court said that the risk of abuse of the covert surveillance system was particularly high in a system where “the secret services and the police have direct access…to all mobile telephone communications.”

Additionally, it found that given the difficulty for people in Russia who suspected that they were being subjected to secret surveillance to get justice, the mere existence of such sweeping legislation breached Mr Zakharov’s right to privacy.

What does this mean for the Investigatory Powers Bill?

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The timing of the ECHR’s judgment is significant. It was handed down one month after the draft IP Bill was published. Its broad message is about the dangers of surveillance and the risk of abuse and it was a reminder to countries other than Russia about the validity of their own systems of mass surveillance. Worryingly, there are clear parallels between the Russian surveillance measures the ECHR deemed “arbitrary and abusive” and the new measures proposed in the IP Bill.

For example, under the Bill, web and phone companies would be required to store records of websites visited by every citizen for 12 months for access by law enforcement authorities, without a judge’s prior authorisation. Internet and phone companies would be required to maintain “permanent capabilities” to intercept and collect the personal data passing over their networks. There would also be under a wider requirement for internet and phone companies to assist the security services and the police in the interests of national security.

One of the Parliamentary Committees responsible for examining an early draft of the Bill expressed concern that the powers it contained would breach human rights law as set out by the ECHR. The Zakharov case was one of the cases they mentioned in this respect.

A pivotal moment

In light of the above, the Bill as drafted could arguably result in the violation of citizens’ right to privacy on a mass scale in the UK.

The Bill is still being debated in the Houses of Parliament, and it remains to be seen whether it will be amended to take into account concerns about its impact on the right to privacy. Whatever the future holds for the Bill, its enactment will no doubt be a pivotal moment for the UK’s approach to safeguarding our right to privacy.

Kate Levine is a Lawyer at the European Human Rights Advocacy Centre (EHRAC). Sabrina Vashisht is PR and Development Officer at EHRAC.

More resources:

Data image ©  Yoel Ben-Avraham  used under Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic.

 

About The Author

Anna Dannreuther Writer

Anna Dannreuther is a barrister at Field Court Chambers practising in public, employment, and commercial law. She is a trans ally and has worked extensively on human rights issues, including at the European Court of Human Rights and with NGO partners.

Anna Dannreuther is a barrister at Field Court Chambers practising in public, employment, and commercial law. She is a trans ally and has worked extensively on human rights issues, including at the European Court of Human Rights and with NGO partners.