EU online surveillance debate intensifies

Efforts to set common European Union rules on data collection by telecommunications companies and ISPs are intensifying, reigniting debate about civil liberties and causing some industry and political officials to question how such moves would aid efforts to fight terrorism.

          Efforts to set common European Union rules on data collection by telecommunications companies and ISPs are intensifying, reigniting debate about civil liberties and causing some industry and political officials to question how such moves would aid efforts to fight terrorism.

          According to one member of the European Parliament, efforts to set common surveillance rules are wasted.

          Italian MEP Marco Capato is criticising national governments from the 15 EU member states for pursuing the ability to do blanket surveillance of all EU citizens' email and phone calls, not only because such methods would erode civil liberties, but also because such moves do not help counter terrorism.

          Improving intelligence rather than gathering greater amounts of data on people is more important in the fight against terrorism, Capato says.

          "The reading of the September 11 tragedy given by major security analysts -- who denounced the lack of human intelligence much more that of data collection technology -- is therefore disregarded, as EU ministerial offices prepare the ground for an EU-wide legal basis to implement generalised and systematic surveillance of citizens' communications," he says.

          "Far from bringing more security to citizens, this move is already diverting energy and resources from more effective intelligence activity," he adds.

          Most EU member states support a common approach to data retention, and many of them are already drafting national laws to this effect.

          Denmark, the holder of the six-month rotating presidency, is less supportive of such moves than most other EU nations. However, it is driving an initiative to have data retention laws in EU countries approximate one another, rather than forcing a single EU-wide law.

          According to some service providers, which face hefty costs if forced to retain data for surveillance purposes, the Danish presidency is actually moving in the right direction in tackling the issue.

          "The Danish presidency is moving away from the idea of writing an EU-wide law on data retention, as was proposed by Belgium when it held the EU presidency. It appears that the Danes favor approximating national laws instead," says Joe MacNamee, EU affairs manager for trade group EuroISPA.

          He added that Danish officials are listening to the views of service providers. "The approach is now more encouraging, transparent and balanced than before," McNamee says.

          The Danish presidency wasn't immediately available to comment.

          The Danish presidency wants the 15 members to support a text that would set the general tone for all national laws on data retention. The latest draft of this text makes frequent references to respecting the civil liberties of EU citizens and to the European Convention on Human Rights, and it argues that surveillance of someone's email or phone calls should only be carried out with a warrant from a court.

          Other countries are not as focused on individual rights. Finland, for example, wants obligatory data retention for a minimum of two years. The UK, France, Italy, Ireland, Luxembourg, Greece, Spain, Portugal and Sweden all favour blanket surveillance, according to Capato.

          Denmark is less enthusiastic but willing to go along with the trend towards greater surveillance, while Austria and Germany are the only countries that appear reluctant to set data retention laws, Capato says.

          "I am especially surprised about Finland. It used to be in the opposite camp on these issues," says McNamee, who agreed with Capato that governments are wrong to focus their antiterrorism efforts so heavily on retaining more of peoples' data.

          The move to set common EU-wide rules on data retention follows the passing of a controversial EU-wide data protection law earlier this year that opened the door for prolonged data retention.

          The data protection law passed in May scraps a clause in a previous code that limited data retention to the one or two months it takes for service providers to process a customer's bill.

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