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Government Eavesdropping is Concern in Europe

Europe is closely following the controversy in the United States over news that the Bush administration eavesdropped on some people without court approval. Lisa Bryant reports for VOA from Paris that when it comes to eavesdropping, the same tensions between private rights and the war against terror exist in Europe as well.

Days after London bombing suspect Osman Hussain fled Britain last July, he was arrested in Rome. Police had traced Mr. Hussain's journey across the United Kingdom, France and Italy after the botched July 21 suicide attacks via conversations on his mobile phone.

Whether police needed or obtained court approval to listen in on Hussain's telephone conversations is unclear. But Bob Ayers, a security expert at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, is skeptical about whether warrants were issued. "This guy went through three nation states," Mr. Ayers said. "He started in the U.K., went through France and ended up in Italy. And I don't know about you -- but have you tried to get a court to authorize phone taps in three nation states in a near real time manner?"

Figuring out what is legal or not when it comes to government eavesdropping is no easy matter. And Europe, Mr. Ayers and other experts say, is no exception.

"The laws across Europe -- as indeed across the entire world -- vary on a state by state basis and they also vary within the state. For example, some nation states prohibit the police from collecting information on their own citizens. But they don't prohibit their own intelligence organizations from collecting information on their own citizens."

In principle, the European Union has two pieces of legislation to protect individuals from eavesdropping. One is the European Convention on Human Rights. The other is a convention regarding data protection.

Sergio Carrera is a senior researcher at the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels. He says the data protection convention was a big issue a couple of years ago when it came to European concerns over sharing information on airline passengers traveling to the United States.

"The European framework of protection as regards data and privacy is much, much higher than the one existing in the United States. And this is where the main discussions between E.U. officials and U.S. officials have been from the very beginning -- as regards to transfer of data between airline, and so on."

In reality, Mr. Carrera says, the scope of the European human rights and data protection conventions is limited. And its hard to ensure member nations are complying with them. In 2003, the E.U. agreed to Washington's requests to share airline passenger data -- despite objections by the European parliament that doing so violated European privacy rights.

More recently, the E.U. has been working to establish European-wide counterterrorism measures after the September 11, 2001 attacks in the U.S. and the subsequent terrorist bombings in Madrid and London. At the moment, the block is weighing two competing proposals regarding the fight against terrorism. Mr. Carrera says the one sponsored by the European Commission offers more privacy guarantees than the other, sponsored by individual nations.

And earlier this month, the European Parliament approved new rules requiring telephone companies to retain customer telephone and Internet records for up to two years, for use in anti-terror investigations.

But most policing powers still lie with individual European nations. Several countries have been working to strengthen their anti-terrorism laws in recent months -- including through measures that broaden state powers to monitor private citizens.

Italy, for example, passed new anti-terrorism measures in July which require public telephone and Internet operators to make passport photocopies of every customer seeking to use their services.

And in France, the National Assembly passed an antiterrorism bill last month that would provide greater official access to phone and Internet records. The French legislation would also increase video surveillance in public spaces.

Still, some experts believe a long-standing controversy over government eavesdropping may serve as a check in the future. France recently wrapped up a series of trials involving wiretapping that took place two decades ago under the presidency of Francois Mitterrand. The operation was ostensibly aimed at foiling terrorist plots. Instead, the unit eavesdropped on telephone conversations of journalists, lawyers and businessmen for Mr. Mitterrand's own personal ends.

Jean-Francois Daguzan is a senior researcher for the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris.

Mr. Daguzan says before the Mitterrand scandal, eavesdropping was easier because it could fall into the category of state secrets. But now, he says, there is a growing demand in France for transparency. If government wiretapping takes place, he believes it will be within a legal context.

Others are not so sure. Mr. Ayers of the Royal Institute believes governments in Europe and elsewhere will continue to be torn between privacy laws and the need to protect their citizens.

"There's human rights in a general sense, and they all need to be respected," he said. "But then there's the question of a threat of citizens of a nation: Whether or not the rights of the threat agent, al Qaida for example, whether their human rights outweigh the right of the citizens of the rest of the nation state to live without being blown up gong to work in the morning."

Reports in the media and elsewhere also suggest Britain and France in particular, may have spied on private citizens without warrants well before the 2001 terrorist attacks. The reports suggested that Britain was a member of Echelon -- an American global surveillance system that allegedly listens in on millions of telephone calls, faxes and e-mails daily. Australia, Canada and New Zealand were reported to be part of the network as well. Reports also suggested that France operated a similar initiative, which some observers dub Frenchelon. The countries officially deny the existence of either body.