Mar 11, 2015 · 2 minutes

The struggle between privacy and security defines the modern era. Politicians and bureaucrats argue that information must be collected to prevent attacks on their countries, while concerned advocates counter that surveillance programs often erode citizens' privacy without making them safer.

Security often wins these battles, but not always. A Dutch court has ruled that a data-retention law which would have required telecoms to store customer information for up to 12 months is too invasive and violates fundamental rights granted to European citizens.

The court levied several complaints against the law. Chief among them, as identifies in its report on today’s suspension,

[T]here was no serious oversight for the retrieval of the data – it could be pulled without a court order or checking by an independent authority. The court said it was aware that suspending the Dutch data retention law would hinder some investigations and prosecutions, but it had to be suspended nonetheless for violating people’s rights.
This is only the latest in a string of suits alleging that data-retention laws violate Europeans’ rights. The Wall Street Journal described some of these efforts in a report this morning:
[I]n several countries, including Germany, data-retention laws have since been tossed out on privacy grounds. And last spring, the European Union Court of Justice, the bloc’s highest court, struck down the underlying directive requiring countries to implement the rules in the first place, saying it didn’t have sufficient safeguards for individual’s right to privacy.
Again, privacy doesn’t often win against security. And while that’s more true in the United States than in Europe — several lawsuits have failed to make so much as a dent in the US’ surveillance machine — the Dutch court’s decision in this case is still noteworthy.

It all depends on what people are more afraid of: allowing their government to collect information about untold numbers of people, or watching someone attack their country. Americans appear to fear the latter; Europeans the former.

That seems unlikely to change. Numerous reports have shown that mass surveillance programs haven’t prevented terrorist attacks, yet politicians still justify their programs with fear-mongering.

At least decisions like this show that it’s possible for privacy to win, even if it’s not in the US. Sometimes it seems like this battle has already been won — it’s worth remembering, as this decision shows, that we're still in the fight.

[illustration by Brad Jonas]