A Landmark Ruling in Brazil: Paving the Way for Considering Data Protection as an Autonomous Fundamental Right

By Bruno Ricardo Bioni and Renato Leite Monteiro

A historic ruling of the Brazilian Supreme Court from May 07, 2020 describes the right to data protection as an autonomous right stemming from the Brazilian Constitution. By a significant majority, 10 votes to 1, the Court halted the effectiveness of the Presidential Executive Order (MP[1] 954/2020) that mandated telecom companies to share subscribers’ data (e.g., name, telephone number, address) of more than 200 hundred million individuals with the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), the country’s agency responsible for performing census research. More important than the decision itself was its reasoning, which paves the way for recognizing the protection of personal data as a fundamental right, independent of the right to privacy, that already receives such recognition, in a similar fashion to the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. This article summarizes the main findings of the ruling. First, (1) it will provide background on the role of the Brazilian Supreme Court and the legal effects of the ruling. It will then look into (2) the facts of the case, (3) the main findings of the Court, to conclude with (4) an analysis of what comes next for the Brazilian data protection and privacy law. 

  1. The role of the Supreme Court and its rulings in the Brazilian legal system

The Brazilian legal system resembles the federative structure of the country. Each state has its own lower courts and appeal bodies. At the federal level, there are also lower courts and appeal bodies with specific scope, such as labor law, cases with international effects or lawsuits against federal agencies. On top of that there are superior courts also with specific scope, such as specific violations of federal laws. 

At the top of the system sits the Brazilian Supreme Court (STF), a constitutional court of eleven Justices appointed by the President. With few exceptions, only extraordinary cases which directly violate the federal constitution, e.g. violation of fundamental rights, reach the court and its rulings can have binding effects upon all other levels of the Brazilian legal system, depending on the type of proceeding or effects granted by the Justices. 

One particular type of proceeding, known as Direct Action of Unconstitutionality (ADI), can be filed directly to the Supreme Court without the need to be discussed on lower-level courts or any other court in cases in which laws or norms directly violate the constitution. Rulings from this particular type of proceedings have nationwide binding effects for all entities of the three branches of the government and for private organizations. This was the type of proceeding filed at STF to discuss data protection as an autonomous fundamental right. Its ruling, therefore, will have overall binding effects. 

  1. Facts of the case and proceedings

Due to social distancing measures adopted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, staff of the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE) is not able to visit citizens in order to conduct face-to-face interviews for the statistical research necessary to perform the national census, known as National Household Sample Survey (PNAD). This is the context behind the Presidential Executive Order 954/2020 (MP), which aimed to allow the IBGE to carry out its census research through telephone interviews. In other words, the declared purpose was to avoid a “statistical blackout”. 

The telephone interviews presupposed to collect data regarding various socioeconomic characteristics, such as population, education, work, income, housing, social security, migration, fertility, health, nutrition, among other topics that can be included in the research according to the information needs of Brazil, e.g., behavior data on the context of the pandemic. These interviews have always been conducted in person on a sample of 70 thousand households that were a statistical representation of the Brazilian population. However, the MP mandated that subscribers data of 200 million telecom clients should be shared with IBGE to perform the census. At a first glance, the first question brought to the Court’s attention was: why is personal data of so many citizens necessary to achieve the same purpose that used to be achieved in the past with fewer information?

 The issue was raised by four different political parties and the national bar association that filed five ADI upon the STF to discuss violations to the fundamental right to privacy, expressly granted by Art. 5, X, of the Federal Constitution, and to the right to secrecy of communications data, provided by Art. 5, XII. In previous case-law, the Court struggled to recognize stored data, such as subscribers data, as data protected by Art. 5, XII. Long standing precedents only granted such type of protection to data in motion, like ongoing telephone calls or data being transmitted. Acknowledging the need to update this understanding in light of new technologies and the impact that the misuse of data can have upon individuals and the society, another argument was presented: the need to recognize the right to protect personal data as an autonomous fundamental right.    

When the ADIs were filed, Justice Rosa Weber, Rapporteur of the case, granted an injunction order suspending the effects of the MP until it was further discussed by all Justices, identifying probable violations of the aforementioned constitutional rights, also arguing that despite the pandemic we are living in there was no public interest to share personal data of 200 million people to undergo the desired public policy.  

The trial in front of the eleven Justices started on May 6, with the participation of the parties’ lawyers and of amici curiae, including Data Privacy Brasil. The organisation filed an amicus brief and it was represented for the oral statement by its Director Bruno Ricardo Bioni (a co-author of this article), who spoke at length about the singular position of the right to protection of personal data, its status as an autonomous fundamental right, the many vices of the executive order and the current data protection landscape in Brazil, including the fact that the Brazilian General Data Protection Law (LGPD) is still in vacatio legis. He also reminded the Court that the national data protection authority, which will provide guidance and enforcement, is yet to be established. The English translation of the oral statement is available online.

  1.  Main findings of the Court
  • Protection of Personal Data as an autonomous fundamental right: a remarkable shift of how the Supreme Court has been analyzing privacy and data protection

Historically, the STF has ruled solely based on the right to privacy and, most importantly, following the legal rationale of this fundamental right by which only private/confidential data should be protected. In the case RE 601314, the Court ruled that the Brazilian Federal Revenue Office (the Brazilian IRS) could have access to financial data from Banks without a court order. According to the Court, the data would remain confidential since only IRS’s staff would have access to the data, and they should abide by their severe informational fiduciary duties. Moreover, such data did not comprise sensitive (‘intimate’) information about individuals (e.g. religion, family relationships) and, therefore, requests to access data from the IRS would not disproportionately interfere on the right to private life. In the case RE 1055941, the same reasoning was adopted in order to grant similar data access request powers to the Public Prosecutor’s Office.  

The new precedent of the Supreme Court is such a remarkable shift of how the Court has been analyzing privacy and data protection because it changes the focus from data that is secret to data that is attributed to persons and might impact their individual and collective lives, regardless of whether they are kept in secrecy or not. There is no more irrelevant data. Justice Carmen Lucia argued that the world that we used to live in, where personal data was freely available in telephone catalogs without substantial risks, does not exist anymore. In this sense, the Brazilian Federal Constitution protects not only confidential data, but all and any type of data that can be deemed as an attribute of the human personality. The best example is the habeas data, a procedural constitutional right by which any person has the right to know what information organizations hold about them, as it was argued by Justice Luix Fuz, recalling a precedent of the Supreme Court (Extraordinary Appeal 673.707). The habeas data constitutional right, originally conferred only against public organizations, is a reminiscence of dictatorial times in Brazil and throughout Latin America, when information about citizens was kept in secrecy by the government and used to suppress the population. This provision can now be used to retrieve personal data held by private entities, as long as the databases at issue are of public interest, such as consumer protection databases managed by data brokers.  

If the Brazilian Constitution’s core value is the protection of human dignity, the protection it affords should go beyond the right to privacy in order to address other harmful challenges to an individual’s existence, and not only harms to personality rights. Today, humanity can be hacked not only through granting access to data regarding our intimacy, or aspects of human personality that must be locked under seven keys. Recalling the work of philosopher Yuval Harari, Justice Gilmar Mendes argued that due to technological progress, any type of data use that covers an extension of our individuality can pose a threat to human rights and fundamental freedoms. For this reason Justice Fux argued that just like the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU, the Brazilian Constitution should recognize the protection of personal data as an autonomous fundamental right, distinct from the right to privacy.

  • Protection of Personal Data as a pillar for democracy 

The Cambridge Analytica scandal was recalled by Justice Luiz Fux to contextualize the collective dimension of data protection rights. By describing the facts surrounding that case, the Justice highlighted how the misuse of personal data can have an impact that surpasses the individual and can affect the very foundations of democracies and influence electoral outputs. “We know today that the dissemination of this data is very dangerous”, affirmed Justice Fux, reminiscing of his term as President of the Superior Electoral Court, when he analyzed a case concerning lack of transparency and knowledge of how personal data is collected and used for political purposes, which can lead to unattended consequences that violate individual and collective rights.

  • Protection of Personal Data is rooted in the due process clause

If the mere processing of personal data can pose risks over the rights of individuals, it should be backed by appropriate safeguards in order to manage potential harmful effects. Thus, protection of personal data should receive the same protection conferred by the due process clause. It is the type of protection that takes into consideration that there are risks to public liberties associated with the mere processing of data that is linked to a person, as argued by Justice Gilmar Mendes, quoting Julie Cohen and her work on informational due process. 

“The use of personal data is inevitably an interference over the personal sphere of someone”, highlighted Justice Luis Roberto Barroso. As a  consequence, it should be proportionate by verifying if: 

  1. a) the purpose of the processing is clearly specified and legitimate; 
  2. b) the amount of data collected is limited to what is strictly necessary in relation to the purposes for which they are being processed; 
  3. c) information security measures are adopted to avoid unauthorized third-party access. 

Such proportionality test was the conclusion made by Justice Luis Roberto Barroso, which is clearly crafted after the traditional principles of protection of personal data. For the first time, a Judge of the Supreme Court has provided a ruling with such strong wording supporting fair information practice principles as components of an autonomous constitutional right to data protection. 

  • Digital Rights as Fundamental Rights

In addition, another landmark case was initiated by the STF two weeks later, with two judges already publishing their opinions. The main question in this second case is whether Internet platforms could implement encryption technology to the level that it could limit and even avoid the access of law enforcement authorities to data stored or in transit necessary to investigate crimes. Again, the proceeding ADPF 403, known as Request of Non-Compliance with Basic Constitutional Principles (ADPF), that has the same effects of ADIs, discussed the violation of the fundamental rights to privacy and secrecy of communication data. “Digital Rights are Fundamental Rights”: with this strong affirmation, Justice Edson Facchin, the rapporteur, gave his vote ruling out any interpretation of the constitution that would allow a court order to provide exceptional access to end-to-end encrypted message content or that, by any other means, weakens the cryptographic protection of internet applications. Justice Rosa Weber highlighted in her ruling that “the past 3 decades have been an arms race of protection technologies and privacy violations. The law cannot be ignored and must preserve the balance between privacy and the proper functioning of the State”. She also stated that “cryptography, as a technological resource, has taken on special importance in the implementation of human rights”.  

The case is still under ongoing proceedings and pending the votes of the other 9 Justices. Nonetheless, the two opinions already published are a breakthrough and show a steep change in the perception and understanding of Brazil’s highest court towards privacy and data protection rights. 

  1. A look to the future: the Brazilian General Data Protection Law and the amendment to the Brazilian Constitution

Despite this historical ruling, Brazil still lacks an institutional infrastructure to supervise and enforce data protection rights. The National Data Protection Authority was created by the Brazilian General Data Protection Law (“LGPD”), but is yet to be established. LGPD was approved in 2018, with an initial adaptation period of 18 months, which was soon amended to be increased by 6 months, leaving the effective date to August 2020. In parallel, a proposal to amend the Federal Constitution aims to include the protection of personal data in the list of fundamental rights. The proposal was unanimously approved by the Senate and by a special parliamentary commission of the House of Representative. Now it needs to be approved by two-thirds of this house. 

Now, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a new bill and another executive order aim to postpone the entering into force of the LGPD to 2021. The bill was already voted by both the Senate and the House of Representatives and it is now to Presidential confirmation. If ratified as it is, the new law would keep the effective date to August 2020. However, it would amend LGPD to allow penalties and enforcement actions only to August 2021. In parallel, a presidential executive order already amended LGPD to change the effective date to May 2021. Nevertheless, this order needs to be approved by the Congress until July this year, what is unlikely to happen due to disputes between the two branches. That said, we can end up not knowing until July when the law will be in effect, one month before its original and possible date. On top of that, the National Data Protection Authority (ANPD), created in Dezember 2018, is yet to be established. Therefore, we can end up in twilight zone with no knowledge what may take place.

What is remarkable is that until the bill to amend the constitution is not adopted, which may not happen in the near future due to political unrest, this ruling of the Brazilian Supreme Court already paves the way to recognize the right to data protection in practice. 

[1] MP- Brazilian abbreviation for Provisional Measure which is a legal act in Brazil through which the President can enact laws for 60 days without approval by the National Congress.

This article was originally published on the Future of Privacy Forum website, on 9 June 2020.