Fears over EU's secret surveillance plans

Privacy groups believe that European governments will soon force ISPs and telcos to store details of Web use, emails and phone calls for up to two years

Privacy advocates have claimed that the European Union is planning to bring in sweeping changes to the laws that govern data retention and privacy in the EU, compelling the long-term storage of users' communications traffic data and making this information available to EU governments.

Statewatch, a UK Internet-based organisation that monitors threats to civil liberties within Europe, said on Monday that European governments are planning to force all of Europe's telephone and mobile network operators and Internet service providers (ISPs) to store details of their customers' communications traffic data for up to two years.

This data, which would include records of Web use, emails and phone calls, would be made available to governments and law enforcement agencies.

The European Parliament is currently debating changes to the 1997 EU Directive on privacy in telecommunications, which governs existing laws on communications data retention. This directive states that traffic data can only be retained for billing purposes, and must then be deleted.

European governments were expected to agree to changes to the 1997 directive that would allow individual countries to bring in laws forcing communications firms to retain data.

Statewatch, though, says it has seen a copy of a binding "Framework Decision" that is currently being worked on by some EU governments. The framework decision, which could be voted into law next month, would force all governments to bring in laws that would compel communications firms to retain all traffic data for between 12 and 24 months.

As ZDNet UK reported earlier this year, it has been rumoured for some time that EU governments were secretly working on such changes.

"EU governments claimed that changes to the 1997 EC Directive on privacy in telecommunications to allow for data retention and access by the law enforcement agencies would not be binding on Member States -- each national parliament would have to decide. Now we know that all along they were intending to make it binding, 'compulsory', across Europe," said Tony Bunyan, editor of Statewatch, in a statement.

Bunyan added that the draft Framework Decision would sweep away the basic rights of data protection, the proper rules of procedure, scrutiny by supervisory bodies and judicial review.

It is thought that the Framework Decision includes the proviso that the police would need to obtain a judicial order before gaining access to traffic data, but Statewatch warns that such conditions have been sidestepped before.

The European Parliament did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

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