Euro civil liberty campaigners urge restraint

Police and intelligence services should not get new or extended communication interception powers or increased access to information, say seven European privacy and civil liberties organisations in an open letter to the European Council.

          Police and intelligence services should not get new or extended communication interception powers or increased access to information, say seven European privacy and civil liberties organisations in an open letter to the European Council.

          In the letter, sent last Friday, the organisations from Austria, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and the UK urge the European Council to defend citizens' freedom and rights in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the US.

          "There is a climate now where it is possible to get measures into place fast. Measures that would otherwise not be allowed," said Maurice Wessling of Bits of Freedom in Amsterdam.

          "Privacy and civil liberties must be part of the debate. They are very important subjects that can't be shoved aside. Privacy and civil liberties are always on the agenda in the US. In Europe, that's much less the case," he said.

          The European Council, convening Friday in Brussels, is made up of the heads of state or government of the 15 member states of the European Union and the president of the European Commission.

          The groups in their letter acknowledge that European leaders wish to enhance the security of their countries, but question the effectiveness and proportionality of extended powers for law enforcement and warn against the "grave loss of privacy" that would lead to.

          "The existence of the Echelon system did not provide intelligence services with information about the attacks in the US. We are concerned that Echelon and similar systems threaten the rights of all European citizens without achieving their stated goals," the letter states.

          Echelon is a system to monitor global communications systems that has been hinted at, but never officially acknowledged. It's said to be operated by the US National Security Agency (NSA) and the intelligence services of New Zealand, Australia, the UK and Canada. US officials have never officially confirmed the existence of Echelon, but an investigative committee of the European Parliament recently concluded that the spy network is real.

          In addition, the civil liberty and privacy groups ask the European leaders to promote encryption as a way to guarantee privacy of electronic communications and not to implement legislation that would force Internet and telecommunication service providers to retain traffic data for use by law enforcement.

          "Retention of traffic data will in effect transform our communications infrastructure into a surveillance system that records intimate details of the personal life of all citizens," the groups state in the letter.

          The European Justice and Home Affairs ministers met last Thursday to discuss which measures to take to maintain "the highest level of security" and to combat terrorism. Issues such as wiretapping were discussed, according to the meeting conclusions. However, no concrete plans to extend the powers of law enforcement are in place, according to Wessling.

          The organisations that signed the open letter are Bits of Freedom in the Netherlands; Chaos Computer Club and Fitug in Germany; Digital Rights, Denmark; Foundation for Information Policy Research and Privacy International, both in the UK, and Quintessenz in Austria.

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