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Does the European Convention on Human Rights protect us from spying by other countries? 

Hildur Hjörvar, mag.jur, Faculty of law.

The rapid technological development of the last few years and decades has made our lives easier in many ways, and we can follow our friends and family as they travel the world in real time. This new technology nevertheless also raises a number of questions concerning privacy and how it can be protected. 

“Privacy is severely endangered by technological development, and I am concerned with how people’s privacy can be ensured in modern society,” says Hildur Hjörvar, who in her master’s thesis in law studied to what extent the European Convention on Human Rights protects privacy in this modern world where international borders are less important than they used to be. 

Hildur graduated in 2017 with the highest grade average ever on a mag.jur exam from the Faculty of Law at the University of Iceland. In her studies she got to know various aspects of the practices of law, for example through her participation in the Philip C. Jessup Law Moot Court Competition in Washington in 2016. This was where she got the idea for her thesis. “One of the subjects in the competition was whether a state could be directly responsible towards the subjects of another state concerning infraction on their privacy,” says Hildur. For example, would the Danish government be responsible if Danish citizens were discovered to have been spying in Iceland?”

Hildur Hjörvar

“Privacy is severely endangered by technological development, and I am concerned with how people’s privacy can be ensured in modern society.”

Hildur Hjörvar

“My conclusion was that the paradigm set by the European Court on Human Rights on when states can be responsible for the human rights of those outside their territories, does not really cover infractions against privacy committed electronically. Various such cases may fall under the protection of the Convention, but it is my conclusion that infractions against privacy as such do not invoke the duties of states according to the convention if we consider the rulings of the court hitherto,” says Hildur, and adds: “However, I argued that the paradigm of the Court has developed on a case by case basis, and that recent rulings have indicated that considering electronic infractions on privacy may invoke the duties of the Convention as the Court’s practice develops.”

Asked about the significance of the study Hildur points out that privacy is under siege today, and that in her opinion it is vital that legal protection goes hand in hand with the technological advances. “It would significantly reduce protection of privacy if states could infringe upon the privacy of people outside their territories without consequences,” she concludes. 

Supervisor: Róbert Ragnar Spanó, Professor at the Faculty of Law and Judge at the Human Rights Court of Europe.