Big brother is watching you

12 Jan 2006

The contentious EU Data Directive that gives each member state the powers to store all phone, SMS, internet, fax and email data for a minimum of six months was voted in last month by 378 MEPs, with 197 voting against.

The directive has been deployed as a means to protect European citizens against terrorism and crime, but various industry and civil rights groups argue that not only does this infringe on privacy rights but it makes the assumption that citizens are already guilty.

Effectively, the directive allows member states the discretion of deciding the upper limit of the retention period. Telecoms and internet firms typically store data for up to six months for billing purposes. However, various European states engaged in the fight against terrorism are pressing for these firms to store the data for longer with suggested time frames ranging between 24 months to six years. Poland, for example, is pressing for the retention of data for 15 years

Ireland already has a law (amendment to the Criminal Justice [Terrorist Offences] Act, 2005) that applies to fixed and mobile telephony requiring a three-year retention period for telephone calls. At present there is no obligation to retain internet data, but this may change. Originally when Justice Minister Michael McDowell TD suggested laws regarding the retention of data for security purposes it raised much protest from civil liberties groups as well as the Data Protection Commissioner at the time Joe Meade.

This time round the lone voices in the wilderness protesting against what they term a “draconian” directive came from the Internet Service Providers Association of Ireland (ISPAI) and a new online civil liberties organisation Digital Rights Ireland (DRI).

To no avail, the ISPAI protested at the unwieldiness of the directive and its true technical effectiveness for the prevention, investigation, detection and prosecution of criminal offences, including terrorism.

From the perspective of DRI — which is headed by University College Dublin law Professor TJ McIntyre — the fear is that the collection of such large amounts of data about private citizens by businesses such as telephone companies and ISPs could not only threaten privacy rights but could have more serious implications if it fell into the hands of criminals.

It is also feared that voluntary community initiatives such as the Group Broadband Scheme in Ireland could crumble under the weight of storing and backing up large amounts of data on customers’ private communications.

Reacting to the European Parliament’s decision, ISPAI chief executive Paul Durrant said: “The industry knows the technology underlying its networks better than anyone. Collectively we are saying, we have always facilitated the police (within the procedures and protections built into current law) to investigate where communications have been used in crime and terrorist activities. We agree that the law can be harmonised and improved but data retention is the wrong way to go about it. There are much more efficient methods that do not require long-term storage of information on every electronic communication of every man, woman and child in the EU.”

In its reaction to the passing of the directive, DRI explained: “The directive, as passed, mandates that EU member states, including Ireland, are to track the location of all mobile phones, all calls made from land lines and mobile phones, as well as all information on individuals’ internet and email usage. This will include keeping records of all websites visited, the senders and recipients of all emails (possibly including the subject lines of same) and the use of any other internet protocol (IP) based communication such as the increasingly popular voice over IP (VoIP) phone providers such as Skype or Blueface in Ireland.”

After justice ministers across Europe approved the text, it only required a single reading and vote in the European Parliament for it to be adopted and become binding on all EU member states. While it has yet to be ratified by the Council of Ministers, this is a mere formality.

By John Kennedy