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International Privacy Day: Fighting Data Retention Mandates Around the World

This January 28 marks International Privacy Day. Different countries around the world are celebrating this day with their own events. In EFF, we are calling on governments to repeal mandatory data retention schemes. Mandatory data retention harms individuals’ anonymity, which is crucial for whistle-blowers, investigators, journalists, and for political speech. It creates huge potential for abuse and should be rejected as a serious infringement on the rights and freedoms of all individuals.

It has been six years since the highly controversial Data Retention Directive (DRD) was adopted in the European Union. Conceived in the EU and steamrolled by powerful U.S. and U.K. government lobbies, this mass-surveillance law compels EU-based Internet service providers to collect and retain traffic data revealing who communicates with whom by email, phone, and SMS, including the duration of the communication and the locations of the users. This data is often made available to law enforcement. Europeans have widely criticized the DRD, and year after year, it has inspired some of the largest-ever street protests against excessive surveillance.

The European Commission has begun mounting a defense for this highly controversial mass-surveillance scheme, though they have thus far been unable to show that the DRD is necessary or proportionate. For the DRD to be legal in the EU, any limitation to the right to privacy must be “necessary” to achieve an objective of general interest and “proportionate” to the desired aim. This requirement is important to ensure that the government does not adopt severe measures to address a problem that could be otherwise solved in a way that is less harmful to civil liberties.  But the Commission has been arguing that all uses of retained data illustrate that the Directive is “valuable.” This doesn’t meet the legal standard. Instead, the Commission should provide evidence that in the absence of a mandatory data retention law, traffic data crucial to the investigation of “serious crime” would not have been available to law enforcement.

Despite the European Commission’s efforts to preserve the Directive as-is, a leaked letter confirms that the Commission has been scrambling to conjure evidence for the “need” of a DRD scheme in the European Union. It also underscores the fact that there is no system of oversight that would allow citizens to monitor the impact of the proposed program on their privacy rights. Perhaps the most disquieting detail that has been confirmed by the letter is that service providers have already been storing instant messages, chats, uploads, and downloads. This type of data collection falls outside the scope of the DRD. Moreover, the letter indicates that “unnamed” players seek to broaden the uses of the DRD to include prosecution of copyright infringement including “illegally downloading.” Since this is not a serious crime, this legally falls outside the scope of the DRD.

In response to this leak, EDRI stated, “The leaked document however shows that the Commission can neither prove necessity nor proportionality of the Data Retention Directive – but still wants to keep the Directive.” The leaked letter also disclosed that the EU Commission is evaluating the possibility of amending the Directive. The Commission has commissioned a study into data preservation in the EU and around the world. According to the letter, this exercise is to be completed by May 2012.

Ending Data Retention: Constitutional Challenges

Constitutional courts have begun weighing in on the legality of this mass-surveillance scheme. In a decision celebrated by privacy advocates, the Czech Constitutional Court declared in March 2011 that the Czech data retention law was unconstitutional. Earlier this month, the same Court dealt another blow to data retention by annulling part of the Criminal Procedure Code, which would have enabled law enforcement access to data stored voluntarily by operators. Most importantly, the Czech Court used compelling language in articulating the importance of the protection of traffic data. The Court stated that the collection of traffic data and communication data warranted identical legal safeguards since both have the same “intensity of interference”.

We couldn't agree more. Sensitive data of this nature demands stronger protection, not an all-access pass. Individuals should not have to worry whether one sort of private information has less protection than another.

Jan Vobořil of Iuridicum Remedium, which led the legal complaint against the Czech data retention law, told EFF:

I believe that both decisions will help ensure that new legislation enforces the same restrictions as exist for use of wiretap. These include strong privacy safeguards for government access to citizen's data, the obligation to inform individuals about the use of their data, and so on.

Several other courts in EU member states have also ruled on the illegality of data retention laws. Earlier in 2009, the Romanian constitutional Court rejected the imposition of an ongoing, sweeping traffic data retention program. The Court rightly emphasized that mandatory data retention overturns the presumption of innocence in a way that treats all Romanians like potential suspects. Despite this court decision, a new draft data retention bill was introduced in the Parliament, but the Senate finally rejected it at the end of 2011.

In March 2010, the German Court declared unconstitutional the German mandatory data retention law. The Court ordered the deletion of the collected data and affirmed that data retention could “cause a diffusely threatening feeling of being under observation that can diminish an unprejudiced perception of one's basic rights in many areas.” The lawsuit was brought on by 34,000 citizens through the initiative of AK Vorrat, the German working group against data retention.

Over in Ireland, the Court is referring to the European Court of Justice the case challenging the legality of the DRD, thanks to the complaint brought by Digital Rights Ireland. The Irish Court acknowledged the importance of defining “the legitimate legal limits of surveillance techniques used by governments”, and rightly emphasized that “without sufficient legal safeguards the potential for abuse and unwarranted invasion of privacy is obvious”. The Courts in Cyprus and Bulgaria have also declared their mandatory data retention laws unconstitutional.

The DRD compels EU member countries to implement the Directive into national law. Fortunately, many member states have not yet done so. The Czech Republic, Germany, Greece, Romania, and Sweden have not adopted this piece of legislation, despite pressure from the European Commission to do so. In Austria, the data protection law will take effect in April 2012.  AK Vorrat Austria plans to use all legal means to challenge the legality of the DRD. They have also handed over a petition to the Austrian Parliament asking the government to fight against the DRD at the EU level and to review all existing anti-terror legislation. (If you are Austrian, sign the petition today at zeichnemit.at.) In Slovakia, the NGO European Information Society Institute is opposing the Slovakian data retention implementation law.

Meanwhile, civil society groups are resisting and campaigning against this oppressive data retention law. EDRI, along with EFF and AK Vorrat, has fought to repeal the DRD in favor of targeted collection of traffic data. EDRI has previously reported that Deutsche Telekom, a German telco, illegally used telecommunications traffic and location data to spy on roughly 60 individuals including journalists, managers, and union leaders. They also reported that two major intelligence agencies in Poland used retained traffic and subscriber data to illegally disclose journalistic sources without any judicial oversight. These are only a few examples in which data retention policies have directly threatened individuals’ expression and privacy rights.

The DRD is a threat to Internet privacy and anonymity, and has been proven to violate the privacy rights of 500 million Europeans. EFF, together with EDRI, will keep fighting to repeal the DRD in favor of targeted collection of traffic data.

Mandatory Data Retention in the United States

Two bills introduced in the U.S. Congress in 2009 would have required all Internet providers and operators of WiFi access points to keep records on Internet users for at least two years to assist police investigations. Neither bill became law. Some legislators and law enforcement officials continue to argue, however, that mandatory data retention is necessary to investigate online child pornography and other Internet crimes. In January 2011, the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security held a hearing that discussed whether Congress should pass legislation that would force ISPs and telecom providers to log Internet user traffic data. In May 2011, H.R. 1981, which would require retention of such traffic data, was introduced in the House of Representatives. This bill is still alive and continues to be a threat to the privacy and anonymity of all Americans. EFF has joined civil liberties and consumer organizations in publicly opposing H.R. 1981. Please join EFF, and help us defeat this bill before it is made law. Contact your Representative now.

Katitza Rodriguez is International Rights Director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. @txitua

1 comment

  • [...] is how the FBI can consider everyone liking his/her online privacy. Katitza Rodrigez was depicting very finely and accurately the current state of privacy fights right before International Privacy [...]

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