A mass surveillance programme that allows European intelligence agencies to collect users' internet and phone data in Europe is unlawful, the European Union's top court ruled on 6 October. Security experts say the ruling is a red light for countries outside the bloc, in particular China and the United States, who in recent years has boosted their surveillance programmes.
The verdict is the result of four cases brought up in Belgium, Britain, and France, where authorities wanted to enhance spying tools in order to protect their citizens. However, the EU's top court stopped short of barring intelligence agencies from snooping on citizens, effectively saying that this should be done only if there is a "serious threat to national security". In such a scenario, intelligence agencies are allowed to gain full access to phone and internet data of users' for a limited period.
"Such an interference with fundamental rights must be accompanied by effective safeguards and be reviewed by a court or by an independent administrative authority", the court said.
Who watches the watchmen?
In 2013, former CIA contractor Edward Snowden leaked a cache of top secrets documents that revealed the US National Security Agency (NSA) conducted mass surveillance operations. The programme was authorised by the Patriot Act, adopted under George W Bush following the 9/11 attacks. Snowden revealed that the NSA spied on millions of Americans and people across the world by recording their conversations and collecting their internet data. The agency also spied on embassies of key US allies and snooped on Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The revelations caused a wave of indignation in Europe and the issue of privacy has been one of the most debated subjects in Europe ever since. Following the NSA scandal, it became known that European countries also snoop on their citizens. This prompted several humans rights organisations to question the legality of these spying programmes.
The decision by the top EU court apparently mirrors a decision by the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which at the beginning of September ruled that the NSA's blanket surveillance programme was illegal. The move was highly praised by human rights organisations across the world and by Snowden.