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Wednesday, 16 May, 2001, 21:46 GMT 22:46 UK
EU condemned over planned 'snoop laws'
Riot police in formation
The EU has been accused of wanting powers denied to repressive regimes
By BBC News Online technology correspondent Mark Ward

Be careful to whom you talk on the net or phone; soon law enforcement agencies could win sweeping powers to scrutinise the electronic communications of every European.

Proposals are being put forward to the European Union to make communications companies keep records of all phone calls, e-mails, faxes and net use for seven years, just in case police forces need to search them during criminal investigations.

Civil liberty groups and net watchdogs have condemned the plans and said the laws, if passed, would give law enforcement agencies powers denied to repressive regimes.

But opposition to the plan is growing as Data Protection Commissioners, business groups and human rights watchdogs unite to fight the proposals.

Watching the web

Statewatch, a civil liberties and state monitoring group, has been leaked documents that reveal the EU is being lobbied to rip up existing data protection and telecommunications legislation and replace it with laws that give sweeping "snooping" powers to police forces.

Under the proposals, net service companies, telecommunication firms and mobile phone operators would be forced to keep the records of every call made, e-mail sent or website visited for seven years.

Law enforcement agencies such as police forces, customs agents and intelligence services would also get free access to trawl through the data when investigating any crime.

Current EU legislation forces law enforcers to get permission every time they want to tap electronic communications or search for evidence during investigations. The existing laws also restrict the amount of time that communications firms can keep data before it has to be destroyed.

'Route map'

"Authoritarian and totalitarian states would be condemned for violating human rights and civil liberties if they initiated such practices," said Tony Bunyan editor of Statewatch.

"The fact that it is being proposed in the 'democratic' EU does not make it any less authoritarian or totalitarian."

Previous attempts to pass laws to grant the sweeping powers have been defeated thanks to objections from Data Protection Commissioners and public outcry. The UK Data Protection Commissioner has said of previous proposals that they would lead to "disproportionate general surveillance of communications".

Caspar Bowden, director of internet think tank the Foundation for Information Policy Research, said the laws would give the police a "route map" of the people anyone associated with, their contacts and sources and would significantly erode civil liberties and privacy.

The proposals are also likely to encounter stiff opposition from businesses reluctant to bear the cost of setting up huge archives to store the data should the police ever want too look at it.

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