EU's Big Brother plan
Data retention proposals spark controversy

Radio Netherlands | November 4 2005

The EU is proposing to keep details of phone calls made, emails sent and websites surfed by all 450 million European Union citizens.
This is in a bid to combat serious crime and terrorism.

The information would be stored for between six months and a year - although some EU countries want to be able to keep the records for longer.

This is essential in the fight against terrorism, claim the backers of the scheme, saying it will provide vital information for police and security services attempting to prevent terrorist attacks and solve serious crimes.

The opponents say the plans are an intrusion into the right to privacy, that the value of keeping such data is not proven and that any such system would be open to abuse.

An expert panel joined forum host, Andy Clark, for the discussion this week.

Click to listen to the programme

The panel:

Simon Hania, the technical director of XS4all, one of the leading Dutch Internet Service Providers (ISPs).

Professor Richard de Mulder from the Erasmus University in Rotterdam, a professor of law and an expert on law and computer technology.

Sjoera Nas from Bits of Freedom, an independent organisation which campaigns to uphold people's digital civil rights.

Corien Jonker from the Christian Democrat CDA party, the biggest party in the current Dutch coalition government.

Gus Hosein from human rights watchdog Privacy International.


Key quotes:

Corien Jonker on why the Dutch government is backing the plan:

"We want the police and justice services to have the tools they need to do their work effectively and serious crime and terrorism is on the increase. Data retention of telecom data has already been proved to help and now we want also data retention of Internet information."

Sjoera Nas on why she is against the EU plans:

"We've been opposing this plan since the year 2000 - it's a very old idea - long before the attacks in New York. Some law enforcement forces in Europe proposed to retain all of this data because anything that could help law enforcement can be useful. You can retain all the DNA of people and it might turn out to be useful. So, this was another of these grand plans that has been laying in the closet for a long time, waiting for a good opportunity to get out. "

"First of all the attacks on New York were seen by its supporters as a good occasion, but then the European Parliament completely disagreed and national parliaments said no, this goes way too far and it goes way beyond our vision of an open and democratic society. Then the attacks on Madrid came and then again the plan was re-launched."

Simon Hania what the Internet Service Providers be asked to keep:
"Well it changes a bit with the different versions of the plans that we see. As I've seen it now it's data regarding email traffic, so who has sent an email to whom, at what point in time and did it succeed or not - not the content of the email or the subject line - that's not in the plans now, but it doesn't mean it can't get in there later."

"The time people access the Internet and what IP address they were given - that's the technical identity of their computer - are also in the plans to be kept. And there's a catch-all phrase that we should keep data about the 'communication labels' that are being used to access various services - this could mean anything. Currently there is no real explanation or interpretation of what it is and it's not a technical term in the IT world. So, that's where my worry is."

Corien Jonker on fears system may be used for things other than tackling serious crime and terrorism:

"If we agree to change things then we can do it, but we don't want that decision so we will not change that, we only want the information to be given to the police for serious crime and terrorism."

Simon Hania on technical difficulties of storing the data:

"It's technically difficult - to give you an idea, we have a market share in the Netherlands of five percent, which means we serve approximately 250,000 households with a broadband connection and we carry traffic in the order of magnitude of 400,000 CDs fully loaded every day. If we had to extract traffic data from that, it would be very difficult."

"Another comparison - in the last year we've carried 2.5 billion emails, eighty percent of that is spam. If you want to do anything with that you first have to wade through the spam - so, it's technically very difficult."

Sjoera Nas on differing EU plans for data retention:

"There are actually two opposing parties proposing this data retention, one is the ministers of justice and the other is the European Commission. So far, the European Commission is trying to create a maximum standard - where they say a maximum of six months for data retention - whilst the ministers of justice are still arguing for data retention for four years. There is strong disagreement."

Professor Richard de Mulder view on data retention:

"It's probably a good idea, we can't be sure: you have to weigh the costs and revenues. At the cost side, we have a better idea than at the revenue side. The reason that we get this proposal now is that it now seems that the costs are relatively low."

Sjoera Nas on the question of whether or not civil liberties should be sacrificed to increase security:

"It's very difficult to answer what if scenarios. I think if you want to protect one very important human right, the right to security, and we all agree on that, we have to respect all other human rights and the first and most important human right of all is that we are all born free and equal and it is not up governments to decide that we are not free anymore."

Professor de Mulder on the critics of the plans:
"Those who are always against these things only look at the costs and the negative aspects, but it's clear to see it might have huge positive aspects."

Gus Hosein's view on the plans:

"Of course, when you frame any idea by saying 'oh, if you want to help combat terrorism then give us this information,' then everybody's going to say 'fine, take all the information you want,' but there's always a point where we say this far and no further."

"I think it's highly amusing that we've spent so many years looking at data retention in Europe, because it's essential to combat terrorism, when never for a minute did the US ever consider implementing data retention. They realised it was a silly proposal; that it would cost too much and the results would be that the people would never accept it."

Richard de Mulder on why he's pleased with the plans:

"I think it will happen and it's probably a good idea, I'm pleased with it anyway because we now have to discuss the privacy issue in a proper way and we will have to discuss better ways of keeping an eye on what police and governments are doing - so it might be a blessing in disguise."

Simon Hania on costs:

"If this all goes through, I think the amount of money that will be put into it would be far more effectively used in other ways, by giving law enforcement other instruments. I'm worried as a citizen that we are putting money in that could be used far more effectively."


A selection of the emails you sent us:

Brian, Canada: "Illegal telephone 'tapping,' by various government agencies, has been going on for many years in Western countries, including Canada. Camouflaging communications with the Internet is widespread. Hijackers, white-collar criminals, etc. send untraceable messages via the Internet, in code or languages other than English. A good example is that the 9/11 hijackers messages were not properly sorted out by the FBI, in trying to stop them from carrying out their deeds. If governments wish to 'tap into' Internet communications, good luck to them. The Internet Superhighway is a very long and never-ending road."

Jim C, USA: "Keep it all private"

Samuel Ato Afful, Accra, Ghana: "I believe though privacy of subscribers is necessary, we must not lose sight of the fact that we've got to do what is necessary to ensure that technology is put to the right use so whatever must be done, has to be done, but of course with the consumer in mind."

Roberto C. Alvarez-Galloso, Miami, Florida: "I think the Internet should remain free from the prying eyes of the state, corporations, and political parties. The Internet as it is, is great."

Jean Sarrazin, Amsterdam: "This proposed measure will do nothing to stop or prevent terrorism. Malicious users will simply circumvent these precautions by using encryption or alternate methods of communication. I have no confidence at all that such a database will be reserved for tracking terrorism suspects. It is too easy and tempting to use it in a broader way. We are entering the world of pre-emptive policing, where a criminal act is no longer required for someone to be accused."

"Furthermore, electronic records should never be used as evidence; they are too easy to tamper with, leaving wide open the door for extortion. What concrete precautions does the government propose to ensure those electronic records are not abused or falsified?"

Frank Biggs, Tennessee, USA: "This invasion problem will become even worse if the UN has its way and seizes control of the Internet."
Harry de Haan, Brisbane, Australia: "Everything you went to on the Net has always been traceable anyway, so what's the big deal? If you don't want to be traced then do not use the Net."

Eric Hovius, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada: " We must protect our privacy, we are all entitled to it and the best solutions can only come when we ask the right questions. In Canada, we had an epiphany when we finally asked, who should be keep our records and why? The first and only major incident in Canada occurred when British Columbia's government sub-contracted out its health care database. All the province's records, from where a person lived, to the type of medical procedure went to the best bidder, a US based company. With the Anti-Terrorism legislation in the United States, the law enforcement agencies can use this information while Canadian police cannot. People were also afraid that this information could be sold to private healthcare providers to target markets. If we don't ask questions those who use this technology will be unregulated.


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