Civil liberties group warns of EU surveillance proposal

Statewatch claims that European governments are secretly drawing up laws that would introduce the universal surveillance of telecommunications

Telecoms firms and Internet service providers across Europe will be forced to retain all telecommunications traffic data under new legislation that is being secretly written by a number of European governments, according to privacy advocates. Statewatch, a UK Internet-based organisation that monitors threats to civil liberties within Europe, said on Wednesday that several European governments are deeply committed to bringing in universal surveillance of telecommunications within the European Union, despite strong opposition from the European Parliament. These governments, Statewatch claims, are secretly drawing up a framework decision that would force the 15 member nations of the EU to bring in new laws that would place all phone calls, emails, faxes and Internet usage under surveillance. The companies affected by the legislation would have to let law enforcement agencies access this data. Privacy directive update
The EC is currently working on an update to the 1997 directive on privacy in the telecommunications sector, but the scope of the Council's framework decision goes much further than earlier proposed changes. Under the 1997 directive information was only retailed for a short time for billing purposes -- in case, for example, a customer complained they had been overcharged. The European Council is proposing that this is changed, so that telecommunications traffic is stored and that law enforcement agencies are given access to it. The EC did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The European Parliament does not agree. In November 2001, the Parliament voted against any form of widespread general or exploratory electronic surveillance, and said that that law enforcement agencies should first have to get permission specifically to do so, in the form of a court order, for example. The European Parliament is due to vote again on this subject on 29 May, but Statewatch said that some unnamed member countries are already working on a framework decision. "By drafting a binding Framework Decision before the proper legislative process is finished EU governments are showing their utter disregard for the European Parliament," said Tony Bunyan, Statewatch editor, in a statement on Wednesday. Before proposed legislation becomes law in Europe, both the Parliament and the Council must agree to it. In a situation where the two bodies hold widely different views, a conciliation process comes into effect. However, Parliament's position will only be formally set on 15 May, when MEPs will get to vote on the issue. If a majority decides to maintain the present situation -- a position also held by the Committee on Citizens' Freedoms and Rights -- then the conciliation process will come into effect. If the vote goes the other way, then the Council's position would win, Statewatch warns. It is not clear what the British Government's involvement is in this alleged framework decision. It is understood, though, that America has put pressure on European nations to retain telecommunications data following last September's terrorist attacks. ZDNet UK reported last year that the British Government wants more retention of electronic data, and that the Home Office was planning to bring in new surveillance laws that would force telecoms companies and ISPs to store data for up to seven years.

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