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EU considers Net traffic, e-mail archive

The European Commission backs the police with a proposal that all e-mails and other Internet traffic be logged and kept for up to seven years.

LONDON--European Home Office officials are supporting demands from law enforcement authorities for logs of all Internet traffic to be stored for up to seven years, a move that would increase police powers to intercept communications data.

The initiative is contained in a draft proposal from the European Commission on the processing of personal data in the electronic communications sector. If adopted, it would increase the data retention responsibilities of network operators and Internet service providers. Ministers involved in the European Council have agreed to back the police on the issue.

Under the proposals, police would be able to demand the recording and storage of all telecommunications data--including e-mails and Internet use--for up to seven years.

Since 1998 the European working group, ENFOPOL, which focuses specifically on law enforcement issues, has been trying to extend standards for interception by European law enforcement agencies to cover Internet and wireless communications. In the United Kingdom, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act was enacted to give law enforcement agencies the power to view data communications. The new proposals, however, go much further and would require changes to the data protection and privacy directives, as well as demand massive amendments to the telecommunications directive under review by the European Parliament.

"It seems police officers are overturning the data protection directive, turning the Internet into their spy system and bizarrely claiming that privacy protection decreases consumer confidence in using the system," said David Banisar, deputy director of Privacy International. "Europe has been at the forefront of protecting individual privacy. It would be tragic to turn it into a law enforcement directive."

The U.K.'s Information Commissioner--formerly known as the Data Protection Commissioner--is objecting to demands for personal data to be stored for longer than 30 days, the current legal period deemed acceptable for business purposes.

"The initiative requires proper legal scrutiny. ISPs are concerned about taking on such a policing function when they are nothing more than communication organizations," said Iain Bourne, strategic policy manager for the commissioner. "It is disproportionate for police to ask for records of who is communicating with who in terms of objectives for crime prevention."

A joint decision between the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament is needed for ENFOPOL's proposal to be accepted by the Telecommunications Council in June, and the Council can block parliamentary decisions.

"Nothing can get through without the European Council agreeing to it; this is the most major battle over civil liberties ever to take place in Europe," said Tony Bunyan, editor of independent watchdog Statewatch. Bunyan is concerned that not only will the initiative require traffic data to be stored for excessive periods of time, it will also give law enforcement authorities unrestricted access to this personal information, enabling them to trawl back through data years later.

In December, the National Crime Intelligence Squad published a report requesting communication companies to keep traffic logs for seven years, suggesting the need for traffic archive warehouses to store this information.

Speaking before the Trade and Industry select committee March 23, E-minister Patricia Hewitt denied U.K. support for increasing police surveillance.

"I do not agree with the proposals. I saw them in the press, I think, ten days ago. I have not had formal communications with the Home Office. I have discussed it informally with Charles Clarke, and I understand it is his view as well that that proposal should not be implemented," she said.

Staff writer Wendy McAuliffe reported from London.