Salman Butt v the United Kingdom
In March 2021 Privacy International intervened in a case in the European Court of Human Rights which challenges the use of social media intelligence by governmental agencies.
The case concerns the gathering and processing, by the Extremism Analysis Unit (“EAU”) of the UK Home Office, of publicly available data concerning the applicant’s allegedly extremist views and the EAU’s assessment based on those data that the applicant was an extremist. The applicant’s personal data seems to have been obtained by the EAU from several sources, including his profile on social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter.
Social media platforms have come to play a vital role for the development of individuals’ private social and political life, as well as their online identity. They constitute the digital life setting of today’s civic spaces where people formulate and discuss ideas, raise dissenting views, consider possible reforms, expose bias and corruption, and organise to advocate for political, economic, social, environmental, and cultural change.
At the same time, the wealth of information hosted on social media platforms, which can range from names and photos to political and religious views, physical and mental health of users and their families or friends, has attracted the interest of public authorities and law enforcement. The latter are increasingly - overtly or covertly - monitoring social media accounts for various purposes, including preventing or detecting crime or threats to national security.
This case presents the ECtHR with a unique opportunity to reaffirm the applicability of Article 8 of the Convention and the protections afforded by it with regard to individuals’ private social and political life as well as their democratic identity in the digital era.
In our intervention we argued that monitoring of social media accounts by law enforcement and governmental agencies constitutes a serious interference with the right to respect for private life. Processing performed by authorities upon individuals’ personal data published on social media for national security and law enforcement purposes goes beyond individuals' expectations of how their personal data may be used.
We believe that the use of SOCMINT by public authorities needs to be subject to a foreseeable legal framework, and contain a series of strict safeguards. Our previous research indicates that the large majority of public authorities who use overt social media monitoring appear to have no processes or procedures in place to audit this surveillance tactic, have no idea how often SOCMINT is being used nor are therefore able to assess whether it is being used in a way that is legitimate, necessary, proportionate and effective.