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The German Constitutional Court Judgment on Data Retention: Proportionality Overrides Unlimited Surveillance (Doesn’t It?)

Abstract

On 15 March 2006, the Data Retention Directive, demanding the retention of telecommunications data for a period of 6 months up to 2 years, was adopted. Since then, this seemingly straightforward directive has “generated” quite an impressive number of court judgments. They range from the European Court of Justice to the administrative (e.g. Germany and Bulgaria) and constitutional courts (e.g. Romania) of some Member-States. In particular, the judgment of the German Federal Constitutional Court, delivered on 2 March 2010, has already caught the attention of several commentators, from civil society, lawyers, journalists and politicians. In the judgment, the Court annuls the German implementation laws of the Data Retention Directive. This paper has two main goals. On the one side, it aims at offering a first critical overview of this important judgment, highlighting some of the key features of the ruling and its main similarities and divergences with other similar judgments. On the other side, given the relevance of the issues at stake, it aims at contextualizing the judgment in the wider framework of European data processing and protection debates, assuming a critical posture on the increasing emphasis on proportionality as the “golden criterion” to assess and limit surveillance practices.

Keywords

  • Data Retention
  • Proportionality Test
  • German Constitution
  • Interior Minister
  • German Constitutional

These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

Earlier versions of this article have been published on the 23rd of March 2010 at the TILT Weblog for Law and Technology (http://vortex.uvt.nl/TILTblog/?p=118) and on the 18th of May 2010 in the CEPS Liberty and Security in Europe – publication series (http://www.ceps.eu/book/proportionality-overrides-unlimited-surveillance). The authors want to thank Patrick Breyer (AK Vorratsdatenspeicherung: German Working Group against Data Retention) and Caspar Bowden (Microsoft) for their salient comments.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Directive 2006/24/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 15 March 2006 on the retention of data generated or processed in connection with the provision of publicly available electronic communications services or of public communications networks and amending Directive 2002/58/EC OJ L105, 13.04.2006. Hereinafter: Data Retention Directive. Available at: http://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=OJ:L:2006:105:0054:0063:EN:PDF

  2. 2.

    Judgment of the Court (Grand Chamber) of 10 February 2009 – Ireland v European Parliament, Council of the European Union (Case C-301/06) (Action for annulment – Directive 2006/24/EC – Retention of data generated or processed in connection with the provision of electronic communications services – Choice of legal basis). Available at: http://curia.europa.eu/jurisp/cgi-bin/form.pl?lang=EN&Submit=rechercher&numaff=C-301/06

  3. 3.

    Administrative Court of Wiesbaden, 27 February 2009, file 6 K 1045/08.WI. See commentary in English: http://www.vorratsdatenspeicherung.de/content/view/301/79/lang,en/

  4. 4.

    Decision no. 13627, Bulgarian Supreme Administrative Court , 11 December 2008. Original text available at: http://www.econ.bg/law86421/enactments/article153902.html. Commentary in English: http://www.edri.org/edri-gram/number6.24/bulgarian-administrative-case-data-retention

  5. 5.

    Decision no.1258, Romanian Constitutional Court, 8 October 2009. Published in the Romanian Official Monitor, no. 789, 23 November 2009. English translation (unofficial): http://www.legi-internet.ro/fileadmin/editor_folder/pdf/decision-constitutional-court-romania-data-retention.pdf

  6. 6.

    Vorratsdatenspeicherung [Data retention] BVerfG 2 March 2010, 1 BvR 256/08. Available at: http://www.bundesverfassungsgericht.de/entscheidungen/rs20100302_1bvr025608.htmll. Hereinafter: the judgment or the German Court judgment.

  7. 7.

    Available in German at the “Juristische Informationsdienst”: http://dejure.org/gesetze/TKG/113a.htm, and http://dejure.org/gesetze/TKG/113b.html

  8. 8.

    Available at http://dejure.org/gesetze/StPO/100 g.html, ibid.

  9. 9.

    Available in English at the website of the “Arbeitskreis Vorratsdatenspeicherung”: http://www.vorratsdatenspeicherung.de/content/view/184/79/lang,en/

  10. 10.

    Available in German at the website of the German Bundestag: http://www.bundestag.de/dokumente/rechtsgrundlagen/grundgesetz/gg_01.html

  11. 11.

    Privacy is not mentioned in the German Constitution, but the German Court has developed a broad right to privacy and “informational self-determination” (“das Recht auf informationelle Selbstbestimmung”) as tenets of the right to human dignity in Article 1 of the Constitution in its famous 1983 “Census Decision”. BVerfG [Judgments of the Federal Constitutional Court] 15 December 1983, (Volkszählung), BVerfGE 65, 1. The plaintiffs in the German data retention case also claimed that the national implementation laws infringed both their right to informational self-determination and their privacy of telecommunication (art 10 GG), but the annulment of the Court was only based on the infringement upon the latter.

  12. 12.

    This is indeed fully in line with the case law of the Strasbourg Court: ECrtHR, Malone vs. UK, 2 August 1984

  13. 13.

    Mohini, (2010), ‘On the BVG ruling on Data Retention: “So lange” – here it goes again…’, 13 April, available at http://afsj.wordpress.com/2010/03/05/so-lange-here-it-goes-again/.

  14. 14.

    Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights states: “Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence” (first paragraph); “There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of this right except such as is in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others” (second paragraph).

  15. 15.

    The legality principle is expressly laid down in Articles 2, 5, 6 and in the second paragraphs of Articles 8 to 11. Interferences by the executive with the rights and freedoms of the individual should not be permitted unless there is a clear legal basis to do so. By the same token, individuals should be able to predict with reasonable certainty when and under what conditions such interferences may occur. Hence the need for a legal basis to be accessible and foreseeable are key features of the first requirement of the privacy check.

  16. 16.

    The Court recalls in its well established case-law that the wording “in accordance with the law” requires the impugned measure both to have some basis in domestic law and to be compatible with the rule of law, which is expressly mentioned in the preamble to the Convention and inherent in the object and purpose of Article 8. The law must thus be adequately accessible and foreseeable, that is, formulated with sufficient precision to enable the individual – if need be with appropriate advice – to regulate his conduct. For domestic law to meet these requirements, it must afford adequate legal protection against arbitrariness and accordingly indicate with sufficient clarity the scope of discretion conferred on the competent authorities and the manner of its exercise” (ECtHR, Case of S. and Marper versus the United Kingdom, Application nos. 30562/04 and 30566/04, Strasbourg, 4 December 2008, § 95 with ref. to ECtHR Malone v. the United Kingdom, 2 August 1984, Series A no. 82, §§ 66–68; ECtHR Rotaru v. Romania [GC], no. 28341/95, ECHR 2000-V, § 55; and ECtHR, Amann v. Switzerland [GC], no. 27798/95, ECHR 2000-II, § 56).

  17. 17.

    Judge Schluckebier wrote an extensive dissenting opinion in which he argues that the retention of mere location and traffic data, particularly when executed by private companies and not by the state itself, does not infringe upon art. 10,1, GG. According to Schluckebier data retention cannot be compared to truly intrusive infringements such as the acoustic surveillance of private premises or remote searches of information technical systems (section 314). Moreover he points at the need for judicial self-restraint in order to give the legislator more room to create regulations which it deems necessary. However, while the majority of the judges agreed that the transposition laws infringed upon the German Constitution, the question whether the law should be declared nullified (which implied that all stored data had to be erased immediately) or whether the legislator should get the opportunity to adapt the laws during a set period of time in which the data would be kept, was a harder question: with four out of eight judges in favor of the latter (section 309), it was a really close call that the transposition laws were completely nullified.

  18. 18.

    Online Focus (2010, 06.03.2010). Bundesdatenschutzbeauftragter: Google, Facebook & Co. Reglementieren. Online Focus, from http://www.focus.de/digital/internet/bundesdatenschutzbeauftragter-google-facebook-und-co-reglementieren_aid_487099.html

  19. 19.

    For a critical overview of the shift towards a “soft surveillance” approach in law-enforcement, cf. Marx, G.T. “Soft Surveillance. The Growth of Mandatory Volunteerism in Collecting Personal Information – ‘Hey Buddy Can You Spare a DNA’?.” In Surveillance and Security. Technological Politics and Power in Everyday Life, edited by T. Monahan. New York London: Routledge.

  20. 20.

    Press release in English: http://www.bverfg.de/pressemitteilungen/bvg10-011en.html

  21. 21.

    Article 29, Data Protection Working Party (2007). Opinion 4/2007 on the concept of personal data. Brussels. Available at http://ec.europa.eu/justice_home/fsj/privacy/docs/wpdocs/2007/wp136_en.pdf

  22. 22.

    Cf. Gonzales-Fuster, G., and S. Gutwirth. “Privacy 2.0 ?,” Revue du droit des Technologies de l’Information, Doctrine 32 (2008): 349–359.

  23. 23.

    Solange II - Wünsche Handelsgesellschaft, 22 October 1986, BVerfGE 73, 339, 2 BvR 197/83. English translation: Wünsche Handelsgesellschaft [1987] 3 CMLR 225.

  24. 24.

    BVerfG 30 June 2009, 2 BvE 2/08 (Lisbon). A preliminary English translation: http://www.bundesverfassungsgericht.de/entscheidungen/es20090630_2bve000208en.html See also: Steinbach, A. “The Lisbon Judgment of the German Federal Constitutional Court – New Guidance on the Limits of European Integration?” German Law Journal 11, 4 (2010), 367–390; Lanza, E. “Core of State Sovereignty and Boundaries of European Union’s Identity in the Lissabon – Urteil.” German Law Journal 11, 4 (2010), 399–418.

  25. 25.

    Ultra vires review is a concept that has already been around for a while in the case law of the German Court, the identity review was a new concept which was forwarded in the Lisbon judgment.

  26. 26.

    Home Office (2009). Government Response to the Public Consultation on the Transposition of Directive 2006/24/EC. Available at http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/documents/cons-2008-transposition-dir/cons-2008-transposition-response?view=Binary.

  27. 27.

    Ibid., p. 27.

  28. 28.

    The Bulgarian, Romanian and German judgments discussed in this section are not the only constitutional challenges which have been raised against the implementation of the Retention Directive. A decision regarding a constitutional complaint directed towards Hungarian Telecom Data Retention Regulations is still pending before the Hungarian Constitutional Court: http://tasz.hu/en/data-protection/constitutional-complaint-filed-hclu-against-hungarian-telecom-data-retention-regulat. In a similar case (Record No. 2006/3785P) pending before the High Court of Ireland the presiding judge decided on the 5th of May 2010 to refer the case to the ECJ. This means the ECJ will finally have to give a substantive decision on the constitutionality of Directive 2006/24/EC. We will return to this important development later in this paper.

  29. 29.

    Decision no.1258, Romanian Constitutional Court, 8 October 2009. Published in the Romanian Official Monitor, no. 789, 23 November 2009. English translation (unofficial): http://www.legi-internet.ro/fileadmin/editor_folder/pdf/decision-constitutional-court-romania-data-retention.pdf

  30. 30.

    Decision no. 13627, Bulgarian Supreme Administrative Court , 11 December 2008. Original text available at: http://www.econ.bg/law86421/enactments/article153902.html. Commentary in English: http://www.edri.org/edri-gram/number6.24/bulgarian-administrative-case-data-retention

  31. 31.

    Access to Information Programme (AIP) Foundation, available at http://www.aip-bg.org/documents/data_retention_231209eng.htm

  32. 32.

    Digital Civil Rights in Europe, available at http://www.edri.org/edri-gram/number6.24/bulgarian-administrative-case-data-retention

  33. 33.

    The Sofia Echo, available at http://sofiaecho.com/2010/02/17/860017_bulgarias-parliament-approves-eavesdropping-act

  34. 34.

    The Sofia Echo, ibid.

  35. 35.

    Stoppt die Vorratsdatensspeicherung! [Stop data retention!], available at http://www.vorratsdatenspeicherung.de/content/view/355/55/lang,en/

  36. 36.

    See, among others: Q. Peel & S. Pignal (2010), “Germany’s top court overturns EU data law”, Financial Times, 2 March, available at http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/563e0fc8-25f6-11df-b2fc-00144feabdc0.html; and H. Mahony (2010), “German court strikes blow against EU data-retention regime”, euobserver.com, 3 March, available at http://euobserver.com/9/29595

  37. 37.

    Online Focus (2010, 02.03.2010). BKA will schnell ein neues Gesetz. Online Focus, from http://www.focus.de/politik/deutschland/vorratsdatenspeicherung-bka-will-schnell-ein-neues-gesetz_aid_486040.html

  38. 38.

    Original text of the letter available at http://www.bdk.de/kommentar/artikel/vakuum-bei-der-kriminalitaetsbekaempfung-im-internet-ist-ein-hochrisiko-fuer-die-sicherheit-der-buerger-sondersitzung-der-imk-und-jumiko-zur-schadensbegrenzung-unverzichtbar/5920af02d045433601f31c9d0dde1180/?tx_ttnews[year]=2010&tx_ttnews[month]=03

  39. 39.

    Arbeitskreis Vorratsdatenspeicherung (2010), After data retention ruling: Civil liberties activists call for political end to data retention. Available at http://www.vorratsdatenspeicherung.de/content/view/355/79/lang,en/

  40. 40.

    Arbeitskreises Vorratsdatenspeicherung (2010). Kampagne: Stoppt die Vorratsdatenspeicherung 2.0! Retrieved 16.04.2010, http://www.vorratsdatenspeicherung.de/static/portal_de.html

  41. 41.

    AK Vorratsdatenspeicherung is lobbying to get directive 2006/24/EC rejected or at least amended, so that Member-States can opt out of data retention: http://www.vorratsdatenspeicherung.de/content/view/362/79/lang,en/ and http://www.vorratsdatenspeicherung.de/images/antworten_kommission_vds_2009-11-13.pdf

    In a phone interview held on 30 April 2010, Patrick Breyer of the AK Vorrat told the authors that AK Vorrat was waiting for the adoption of the relevant European Citizens’ Initiative legislation to launch their citizens’ initiative campaign. The European Commission has already presented a first proposal: European Commission (2010), Proposal for a regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council on the citizens’ initiative.

  42. 42.

    Die Presse.com (2010, 04.03.2010). Deutsche Telekom vernichtet 19 Terabyte an Vorratsdaten. Die Presse.com, from http://diepresse.com/home/techscience/internet/544115/index.do?from=gl.home_tech

  43. 43.

    Among the main reasons behind the massive rejection of the new “Swift Interim Agreement” were the European Parliament’s requests for increased data protection guarantees and further inter-institutional cooperation to ensure proper parliamentary control. See European Parliament website: http://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/expert/background_page/019-68530-032-02-06-902-20100205BKG68527-01-02-2010-2010-false/default_en.htm

  44. 44.

    In particular, Belgium and Luxembourg have not yet passed the implementation laws.

  45. 45.

    European Commission (2010), Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions, Commission Work Programme 2010 – Time to act.

  46. 46.

    Idem, p. 18 (annex).

  47. 47.

    Art. 14(1) Data Retention Directive.

  48. 48.

    A draft version of this document has recently been leaked (http://https://docs.google.com/fileview?id=0B2Rh7x7YpF3KNTZlNTU0NDAtZjgwMS00YzJkLWFiODktMDQwNTUxMjE3MTcz&hl=en). See also: Karlin Lillington “Leaked report reveals big surge in call data requests”, Irish Times, 14 May 2010, online available at: http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/finance/2010/0514/1224270357547.html

  49. 49.

    European Commission (2010), Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions. Delivering an area of freedom, security and justice for Europe’s citizens, Action Plan Implementing the Stockholm Programme, p. 30.

  50. 50.

    van Drooghenbroeck, S. La proportionalité dans de le droit de la convention européenne des droits de l’homme. Brussels: Bruylant, 2001, 777.

  51. 51.

    Henrard, K. Mensenrechten vanuit international en nationaal perspectief. The Hague: Boom, 2007, 258. See also Deverman, B.A. “Fourteenth Amendment - Equal Protection: The Supreme Court’s Prohibition of Gender-Based Peremptory Challenges.” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 85 (1995).

  52. 52.

    On the nature of the Court’s review see, e.g., ECtHR, Handyside, Series A-24, §§ 49–50 and ECtHR, Olsson, Series A-130, §§ 67–69 Relevant factors include the nature of the Convention right in issue, its importance for the individual and the nature of the activities concerned. If the Court finds that one or more of these factors are present, e.g. the right at stake is crucial to individual’s effective enjoyment of intimate or key rights, then the state has a narrow margin of action. If they are not the state’s action will be assessed against a wider margin of appreciation. See E. Guild, “Global Data Transfers: The Human Rights Implications”, Inex policy brief no. 9, May 2009, 10p., (http://www.ceps.eu/ceps/download/3400)

  53. 53.

    De Hert, P. “Balancing security and liberty within the European human rights framework. A critical reading of the Court’s case law in the light of surveillance and criminal law enforcement strategies after 9/11.” Utrecht Law Review 1, 1 (2005): 68–96 (http://www.utrechtlawreview.org/publish/articles/000005/article.pdf).

  54. 54.

    van Drooghenbroeck, S. La proportionalité dans de le droit de la convention européenne des droits de l’homme. Brussels: Bruylant, 2001, 728.

  55. 55.

    See on this more in detail: De Hert, P. “Balancing security and liberty within the European human rights framework. A critical reading of the Court’s case law in the light of surveillance and criminal law enforcement strategies after 9/11.” Utrecht Law Review 1, 1 (2005): 68–96 (http://www.utrechtlawreview.org/publish/articles/000005/article.pdf). See on the strict proportionality test in the Marper judgment: Guild, E. “Global Data Transfers: The Human Rights Implications” Inex policy brief 9 (May 2009): 10., (http://www.ceps.eu/ceps/download/3400)

  56. 56.

    Such ability of some Interior Ministries to operate along several layers to shape in a specific way security measures based on data exchange, and foster their adoption at European and international levels, was particularly evident in the case of the Prüm measure, dealing with exchange of DNA, fingerprints and vehicle registration data. For an analysis of the re-shaping of power relations, cf. Bellanova, R. “The ‘Prüm Process’: The Way Forward for Police Cooperation and Data Exchange?” In Security vs. Justice? – Police and Judicial Cooperation in the European Union, edited by E. Guild and F. Geyer, 203–221. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008.

  57. 57.

    European Court of Human Rights, Case of S. and Marper versus the United Kingdom, Application nos. 30562/04 and 30566/04, Strasbourg, 4 December 2008.

  58. 58.

    Bellanova, R., and P. De Hert. “Le cas S. et Marper et les données personnelles: l’horloge de la stigmatisation stoppée par un arrêt européen.” Cultures & Conflits 76 (2009): 101–114; De Beer, D., P. De Hert, G. Gonzalez Fuster, and S. Gutwirth. “Nouveaux éclairages de la notion de la notion de « donnée personnelle » et application audacieuse du critère de proportionnalité. Cour européenne des droits de l’homme Grande Chambre S et Marper c. Royaume Uni, 4 décembre 2008.” Revue Trimestrielle des Droits de l’Homme 81 (2010): 141–161 and Gonzalez Fuster G., P. De Hert, E. Ellyne and S. Gutwirth (2010) Huber, Marper and Others: Throwing new light on the shadows of suspicion, INEX Policy Brief No. 11, 2010 Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS), 9p. via http://www.ceps.eu/book/huber-marper-and-others-throwing-new-light-shadows-suspicion

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de Vries, K., Bellanova, R., De Hert, P., Gutwirth, S. (2011). The German Constitutional Court Judgment on Data Retention: Proportionality Overrides Unlimited Surveillance (Doesn’t It?). In: Gutwirth, S., Poullet, Y., De Hert, P., Leenes, R. (eds) Computers, Privacy and Data Protection: an Element of Choice. Springer, Dordrecht. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-007-0641-5_1

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