EU agreement on communications snooping 'unlikely'

Talks on controversial plans to store all electronic communications for up to seven years are unlikely to reach agreement at a key meeting in Brussels today
Written by Wendy McAuliffe, Contributor

The Telecommunications Council in Brussels today will discuss the controversial draft directive on data protection and privacy in the electronic communications sector, but is unlikely to reach a common position.

Members of the Council and European Commission (EC) are vehemently opposed to UK demands for electronic data to be retained for up to seven years for use by law enforcement agencies, as are rapporteurs in the European Parliament and the Data Protection Working Party. The new directive, which was simply intended to update current laws to include modern means of communication, risks contravening data protection and privacy principles.

"It doesn't look like they will reach a decision today," said Tony Bunyan, editor of the independent watchdog Statewatch. "But if the Council does decide to bang heads together and reach a common position, they are heading for a major confrontation, and the European Parliament would have to reconsider its report."

A joint decision is needed between the Telecommunications Council, European Commission and European Parliament for the controversial proposals to be included in the Directive. Clear divisions have formed amongst member states, with Greece, Italy and the Netherlands strongly opposed to proposals for police to have such far-reaching powers of surveillance. If it proves impossible to reach an agreement on the Directive, the draft report will be taken to the Conciliation Committee where the whole measure could fall -- but this rarely happens in the European Union.

Under current EU law, personal data can only be retained for 30 days -- the current legal period deemed acceptable for billing purposes. The data then has to be erased or made anonymous as soon as this need is fulfilled.

"The fundamental issue is whether you can change the purpose for retaining data, as the moment you cross current standards for law enforcement needs, you are breaching the whole principle of data protection and privacy," said Bunyan.

The move to retain traffic data and grant police access to this information is likely to breach Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees a person's right to privacy. "It is an issue in which there is widespread interest in civil society outside of Brussels," Bunyan said. "If people become aware that all of their telecommunications are under surveillance, it will ironically undermine their confidence in e-commerce."

The EU Data Protection Working Party has sent a letter to the presidents of the European Parliament, EC and the Council of the European Union, voicing his objection to a breach of human rights.

"Systematic and preventative storage of EU citizens' communications and related traffic data would undermine the fundamental rights to privacy, data protection, freedom of expression, liberty and presumption of innocence. Could the Information Society still claim to be a democratic society under such circumstances?" he asked.

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