The court ruled that the Hungarian government had violated article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (the right to privacy) because it failed to have sufficiently precise, effective and comprehensive measures that would limit surveillance to only people suspected of crimes.
The Hungarians had a law where a minister of the government could approve a police request to search people’s houses, mail, phones and laptops if they are seeking to protect national security.
That process did not require judicial review or approval or provide the circumstances under which the surveillance can be ordered. A minister can order the surveillance for 90 days and extend it by another 90 days and there is no obligation to delete any of the information gathered during that time once the surveillance is ended.
Two activists, Máté Szabó and Beatrix Vissy, sued the Hungarian government over the law in 2014 claiming it infringed their human rights, and the ECHR’s Fourth Section heard the case.
In ruling that the law was a breach of human rights, the court made a few other statements which suggests that mass surveillance would be illegal.
The court ruled that the Hungarian law did not provide sufficient guarantees against abuse, it also did not like the way the government attempted to widen its snooping powers.
The Hungarian government should be required to interpret the law in a narrow fashion and “verify whether sufficient reasons for intercepting a specific individual’s communications exist in each case.”
Basically it is saying that each case must be dealt with in an individual way which is impossible if the law is used to carry out mass surveillance.
The ruling is binding on all European countries including the UK. David Cameron’s party is trying to push through controversial legislation to allow similar mass surveillance under the control of a minister.
Of course the decision cannot stop the UK government, for example, from passing legislation that allows for mass surveillance. It just means that it will be taken to the European Court of Human Rights and lose.
Cameron is not a big fan of the court and has moaned in the past that it was unfair that it had told him off for trying to extradite convicted terrorist Abu Qatada to Jordan was a violation of human rights, as he would be unlikely to get a fair trial.
The UK and Jordan agreed to a treaty that meant information extracted from him under torture could not be used in a trial. When he was deported to Jordan and put on trial, he was found not guilty and released from jail in September 2014.