Right to privacy

  • The European Convention on Human Rights protects the right to respect for private life, the home and correspondence. This includes protecting the privacy of messages, phone calls, and emails.
  • Governments can only interfere with these rights when it is specifically allowed by law, and done for a good reason – like national security or public safety.
  • Privacy rights protect the public from unlawful and unnecessary government surveillance.




Safeguards on DNA storage after a farmer’s privacy rights were breached

Jean-Michel Aycaguer refused to give a DNA sample to police because he was concerned about his personal data. He was fined €500. The European court found that France had violated Jean-Michel’s right to privacy because the law on the storage of DNA profiles lacked sufficient safeguards. This judgment caused France to change the law to better protect personal data.

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Holocaust survivor defends his reputation at the European court

Aba Lewit took legal action against a magazine that described concentration camp survivors as “a plague”, but the Austrian courts said he had no case to argue. Aba then turned to the European Court of Human Rights, which found that Austria had failed to protect his reputation. Austria’s highest court later declared that the domestic courts had not properly explained their decisions in Aba’s case.

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Justice for woman whose private health data was leaked to journalists

Gitana Biriuk took successful legal action against a newspaper that disclosed her HIV status. She only received a small amount in damages because of legal limits on what could be awarded. The European court ruled that these limits failed to protect Gitana’s right to privacy. By the time of the judgment, Lithuania had removed the upper limit on compensation awarded by its courts in such cases.

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Privacy reforms after retired couple had their phone tapped

Jacques and Janine Huvig were a retired couple who had run a fruit-and-vegetable business. Police tapped their phone and listened to their conversations. At the time, investigators had almost limitless powers to tap the phones of almost anyone for almost any reason. The European court ruled that there must be clear legal limits and safeguards to protect people’s privacy – leading to a change in...

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Justice for businessman subjected to a police raid just because of someone else’s traffic violation

Jürgen Buck ran a small business in a town near Frankfurt. One afternoon police suddenly raided his house and office. Jürgen alleged that suspicions were raised locally that he was involved in crime, leading to a loss of business. Yet the raid had merely been an unnecessary step in proceedings against Jürgen’s son for speeding. The European court ruled that the raid had been disproportionate.

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Excessive police operation against journalists leads to reforms to protect media sources

Four Belgian journalists were targeted by the police in a huge search and seizure operation aimed at identifying the source of leaked government information. The Strasbourg court ruled that the operation had been unjustified and disproportionate. The case influenced new legislation to improve protections for journalists and their sources.

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Secret filming of a child in a bathroom and the reform of privacy laws

Eliza Söderman was 14 when she found out that her stepfather had hidden a secret camera to record her undressing. The police got involved, but the stepfather was cleared of any crime because his actions had not been illegal under Swedish law. The Strasbourg court found that this violated Ms Söderman’s right to privacy. The case highlighted the need for legal reforms.

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DNA records of innocent people destroyed after privacy complaint

Two men from Sheffield had DNA samples taken by the police. Criminal charges against them were dropped. However, under British law the police could retain their DNA forever. The Strasbourg court ruled that keeping DNA records of innocent people breached their right to privacy.

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Limits on government surveillance and the right to access information

R.V. was a postman. Along with 200 others, he was put under secret surveillance by security services – allegedly for being part of the Peace Movement. The European Commission for Human Rights found that Dutch law had not properly protected the applicants, violating their right to privacy. A new law was passed to clearly set out the circumstances and conditions in which secret surveillance can...

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CCTV footage of suicide attempt used for publicity

A local authority’s CCTV cameras recorded a man attempting suicide. The local authority released the pictures to the media, after which they appeared in newspapers and on television. The Strasbourg Court ruled that the release of the images had been an unnecessary violation of the man’s privacy.

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Privacy laws strengthened after a lawyer’s phone calls were intercepted

The authorities tapped the telephone of lawyer Hans Kopp and listened to confidential conversations. The Strasbourg court ruled that Swiss law had not properly limited the interception of confidential communications by the authorities. This violated Mr Kopp’s right to respect for privacy, leading to stronger legal protections.

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Ending the unjustified storage of private information by security services

Surveillance material on five Swedes was collected by the secret services in the 1960s and 1970s. The Strasbourg court ruled that the continued storage of material on four of them had not been justified, and breached their right to privacy. Reforms were made to give people more power over personal information in the government’s possession.

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 Council of Europe’s Webpage on Data Protection

Factsheets on the case-law of the European Court of Human Rights:

 Legal professional privilege PDF (250 Ko)

 Mass surveillance PDF (211 Ko)

 Protection of personal data PDF (480 Ko)

 Handbook on European data protection law PDF (1,200 Mo)