The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has ruled that Bulgaria’s Special Surveillance Means Act, which authorizes the government to surveil citizens in certain circumstances, violates the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. The decision was delivered on a petition filed by Bulgarian citizens and European human rights groups.
Bulgaria’s surveillance act, along with several articles of the Bulgarian Code of Criminal Procedure, authorize the government to surveil citizens (visually or otherwise) and to intercept citizens’ telephonic and electronic communications on the grounds set out in the act. The petitioners asserted that the act violates the European human rights convention because the surveillance system is not appropriately supervised and the legislation does not provide sufficient safeguards against arbitrary or abusive use of or access to the information collected. In addition, the petitioners alleged that although the legislation ostensibly allows citizens to demand information about the surveillance to which they have been subjected, in practice, the authorities do not provide satisfactory responses to such requests.
The ECHR found that the grounds for surveillance specified in the act, such as the protection of national security, do not violate the Convention per-se. However, the lack of proper judicial oversight over surveillance warrants, along with the lack of clear regulation regarding the storage of, access to, and deletion of information derived from the surveillance system, ultimately leads to the violation of Article 8 of the Convention. Article 8 provides that any individual “has the right to respect for his or her private and family life, home and his correspondence”.
The court ordered the Bulgarian government to amend the law to cease the violation and ensure that it is compatible with the Convention.