Group warns of EU telecom surveillance

Privacy advocates say that European governments are secretly drawing up laws with plans to introduce surveillance of telecommunications.

Graeme Wearden Special to CNET News.com
3 min read
Telecommunications companies and Internet service providers across Europe may be forced to retain all telecommunications traffic data under new legislation that is being secretly written by a number of European governments, according to privacy advocates.

Statewatch, a U.K.-based Internet organization that monitors threats to civil liberties within Europe, said Wednesday that several European governments are deeply committed to bringing in universal surveillance of telecommunications within the European Union, despite strong opposition from the European Parliament. These governments, Statewatch says, are secretly drawing up a framework decision that would force the 15 member nations of the EU to bring in new laws that would place all phone calls, e-mails, faxes and Internet usage under surveillance. The companies affected by the legislation would have to let law enforcement agencies access this data.

The European Council is currently working on an update to the 1997 directive on privacy in the telecommunications sector, but the scope of the council's framework decision goes much further than earlier proposed changes. Under the 1997 directive, information was only retained for a short time for billing purposes--in case, for example, customers complained they had been overcharged.

The European Council is proposing that this get changed, so that telecommunications traffic is stored and that law enforcement agencies are given access to it.

The EC did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The European Parliament does not agree with the idea. In November 2001, the Parliament voted against any form of widespread general or exploratory electronic surveillance, and it said that law enforcement agencies should first have to get permission specifically to do so, in the form of a court order, for example.

The European Parliament is due to vote again on this subject on May 29, but Statewatch said that some unnamed member countries are already working on a framework decision.

"By drafting a binding Framework Decision before the proper legislative process is finished EU governments are showing their utter disregard for the European Parliament," Statewatch editor Tony Bunyan said in a statement Wednesday.

Before proposed legislation becomes law in Europe, both the Parliament and the council must agree to it. In a situation where the two bodies hold widely different views, a conciliation process comes into effect.

However, Parliament's position will only be formally set on May 15, when Members of Parliament will get to vote on the issue. If a majority decides to maintain the present situation--a position also held by the Committee on Citizens' Freedoms and Rights--then the conciliation process will come into effect. If the vote goes the other way, then the council's position would win, Statewatch warns.

It is not clear what the British Government's involvement is in this alleged framework decision. It is understood, though, that the United States has put pressure on European nations to retain telecommunications data following last September's terrorist attacks.

ZDNet U.K. reported last year that the British government wants more retention of electronic data and that the Home Office was planning to bring in new surveillance laws that would force telecommunications companies and Internet service providers to store data for up to seven years.

ZDNet U.K.'s Graeme Wearden reported from London.