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EU Council backs Net snooping

The group accepted a proposal that would allow countries to force telecoms and others to keep records of all voice and data communications of their citizens.

LONDON (ZDNet UK)--The Council of the European Union yesterday agreed to a proposal to give individual countries the power to force telecoms and other communications providers to keep records of all voice and data communications of their citizens, possibly for years.

If adopted, the changes would give police access to telephone, email and Internet records going back up to seven years, although the length of time the records would be kept has not yet been agreed. Furthermore, the European Parliament is expected to reject the proposal, which faces strong opposition from privacy advocates and many European politicians.

After what an EU press release described as "thorough debate", the council agreed that the new directive on data protection and privacy in the telecommunications sector would give member states the power to bring in their own laws forcing network and services providers to retain traffic data. Such information would be available to law enforcement agencies.

Britain has been lobbying the EU Telecommunications Council to accept the proposals, in the face of heavy criticism. It claims they will help in the fight against crime. According to the Daily Telegraph, British officials at the EU have said that the changes will help the police to detect child pornography, incitement to racism and money laundering on the Net.

But the move is seen as a threat to civil liberties by, among others, the EU data protection working party and Elizabeth France, the UK's Information Commissioner (formerly the Data Protection Commissioner). The European Commission and the European Parliament have also both criticised the proposals.

Stefano Rodota, chairman of the EU Data Protection Commissioners Committee, believes that the changes will break the protections laid down in the European Convention of Human Rights.

"Systematic and preventive 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," Rodota warned recently in a letter he sent to the Council of the European Union.