European Parliament restricts access to personal data

Cappato report challenges European Council plans to give law enforcement greater access to electronic communications

The European Parliament (EP) Civil Liberties Committee approved a report by the radical MEP Marco Cappato on Wednesday, in favour of a strict regulation of law enforcement authorities' access to personal data in the electronic communications sector.

The decision complicates continuing efforts by the European Council 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 for up to seven years. It responds to the alarming outcome of the EP's recent Echelon report, confirming the existence of a US-led communications spy network.

"Ministers of the European Parliament were quite disturbed that this sort of interception happens in Europe, and that law enforcement authorities are requiring more powers in intercepting traffic data," said Yaman Akdeniz, director of Cyber-Rights and Cyber-Liberties. "There are human rights issues to be respected here."

The Cappato report was accepted with 22 votes in favour, 12 against and 5 abstentions, under the co-decision procedure. The decision will go to a plenary session for ratification by the EP in September, on the same day that the draft report on Echelon is discussed.

As the Cappato report stands, EU countries should restrict police powers to intercept communication traffic data and location data in normal circumstances. It also rejects proposals contained within the draft EU telecommunications directive to retain traffic data for up to seven years, and states that information should not be stored for longer than is necessary for the transmission of data and for traffic management purposes. Under current EU law, personal data can only be retained for 30 days -- the current legal period deemed acceptable for billing purposes.

But Caspar Bowden, director of the Foundation for Information Policy Research, is concerned that Article 15 of the report needs to be further fleshed out. The amendment states that countries may lift the restrictions on police powers in "entirely exceptional" circumstances.

This must constitute "a necessary, appropriate, proportionate and limited in time measure within a democratic society to safeguard national security, defence, public security, the prevention, investigation, detection and prosecution of criminal offences or of unauthorised use of the electronic system".

"In my view it is not yet clear how "entirely exceptional" and "individual cases" will be interpreted in the context of blanket data retention, or how "proportionality" is to be assessed," Bowden said.

The controversial EU directive, which was simply intended to update current laws to include modern means of communication, is likely to breach Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees a person's right to privacy. Akdeniz is happy that the Cappato report proposes a more proportionate approach towards data interception and retention, and is less likely to infringe human rights.

"If the EP is concerned about protecting the privacy of consumers, it should follow the Cappato report, rather than give law enforcement authorities extra powers," Akdeniz argues.

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