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Thursday, 30 May, 2002, 14:07 GMT 15:07 UK
European 'spying' laws savaged
Surfing the net, BBC
Net users could come under increasing scrutiny
Civil liberty groups have condemned a European Parliament decision to let law enforcers spy on phone and net users.

They also sharply criticised the parliament's decision to force phone companies and net service providers to keep for years logs of what customers are doing.

The parliament said the measures were necessary following the 11 September attacks to safeguard national security.

But some MPs said the decision handed too much power to the state at the expense of individual privacy and liberty.

Terror fight

The parliament voted to adopt the new data protection and privacy rules on Thursday.

Once adopted, national governments will be forced to draw up laws to put the directive into practice.

Before the vote, a coalition of 40 civil liberty groups issued a joint statement warning that some of the proposed amendments could have "disastrous consequences for the most sensitive and confidential types of personal data".


With today's vote the European Parliament supports the project of a surveillance union

Ilka Schroeder, MEP
One of the most contentious amendments called for police forces to be given the power to make net service and phone companies keep extensive logs of what their customers are doing.

Some governments were calling for such powers, claiming that they would prove useful in the fight against terrorism.

Currently net service providers and telecommunications firms only keep logs of customer activity while they generate bills. Under the new laws, the firms could be asked to keep information indefinitely.

Civil liberty groups fear that police forces will be tempted to use the collected information as a database they can trawl through for suspicious activity - rather than acting on a case-by-case basis as they do now.

Policeman using video camera, PA
Some fear state surveillance is growing
In the UK, civil liberty groups have warned that the controversial Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act already gives law enforcement agencies sweeping powers to snoop on net users.

The author of the bill, Italian independent Marco Cappato, criticised the inclusion of the data retention amendment.

"This amounts to a large amount of restriction on privacy and increases the powers of the state," said Mr Cappato.

Other MEPs were more scathing.

"With today's vote the European Parliament supports the project of a surveillance union," said Ilka Schroeder, MEP and shadow rapporteur of the United European Left Group.

She said not even the secret police of the former East Germany had enjoyed the power to snoop that this directive gave to law enforcement agencies.

Spam stopped

The wide-ranging directive also contains new rules on the sending of unsolicited commercial e-mail and the use of net-based data files or "cookies".

Now firms will only be able to send out e-mail adverts if people agree in advance that they want to receive them. The directive effectively bans the sending of unsolicited e-mail or spam.

Early drafts of the directive worried net advertisers because they threatened to impose the same conditions on the use of internet cookies.

Many websites use these small data files to identify repeat visitors, maintain records of what someone wants to buy while they are at the site and to tailor what visitors see.

Angela Mills-Wade, spokeswoman for the Interactive Advertising Bureau, welcomed the decision by the parliament on cookies.

"They realised it was disproportionate to impose such stiff requirements and it was much better to have something more practical," she said.

See also:

11 Jul 01 | Science/Nature
13 Nov 01 | Science/Nature
15 Feb 02 | Science/Nature
17 May 01 | Science/Nature
18 Jan 02 | Science/Nature
01 Jun 01 | Science/Nature
28 Sep 01 | UK Politics
Links to more Science/Nature stories are at the foot of the page.


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