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Europe succumbs to UK pressure on data retention

The European Council has approved controversial changes to the Communications Data Protection Directive that will expand data retention powers
Written by Wendy McAuliffe, Contributor

European Council ministers succumbed to pressure from the UK government on Thursday when they approved controversial changes to a data protection and privacy directive. The changes will enable individual countries to pass new laws allowing the retention of traffic data in emergencies.

In reaching a common position on the revised Communications Data Protection Directive, the European Telecommunications Council has paved the way for the UK's anti-terrorism bill, which is scheduled for royal assent next week.

Members of the Council and European Commission (EC) have been vehemently opposed to UK demands for electronic data to be retained for up to seven years so that law enforcement agencies can access them. Rapporteurs in the European Parliament and the Data Protection Working Party have also voiced concerns. The critics say that if data protection principles are suspended for law enforcement purposes, there will be a risk to data protection and privacy principles.

"There are major human rights issues -- for several years, the Article 19 committee (a club of data protection commissioners) -- has been saying that blanket traffic data retention is incompatible with Article 8 of the Human Rights Act (HRA)," said Caspar Bowden, director of the Foundation for Information Policy Research. "We are on course for some battle over whether this Directive can be challenged with the HRA."

The existing directive compels businesses to eradicate traffic data after 30 days -- the current legal period deemed acceptable for billing purposes. But certain European states, namely France, have been contravening the Directive by allowing the retention of traffic data for police investigations under local law. The UK government consequently submitted a request to the EC for clarity on European data retention principles.

A joint decision is needed between the Telecommunications Council, European Commission and European Parliament for the controversial proposals to be included in the Directive. The Council decision will now go back to the EP for further negotiations, and a final decision is expected early next year.

The UK Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Bill, which contains a voluntary code of practice for communications providers to retain traffic data in cases of national security, went through its report stage Thursday night. It will now go back to the House of Commons for consideration of Lords' amendments, and is due to receive royal assent next week.

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