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Germany and Austria stand alone among European countries expressing reservations about controversial European Union data retention proposals.

At present, service providers retain data only for billing purposes, but that is set to change because of plans that would compel ISPs to retain data for up to two years, in case the information became of might prove useful in police or security service investigations into serious crime or terrorism.

This data would include catalogues of web sites visited, records of e-mail recipients, lists of telephone numbers dialled, and the geographical location of mobile phones at all times they were switched on. It doesn't include the contents of messages.

Privacy advocates such as the Foundation for Information Policy Research have questioned the need for such measures, warning of their impact on civil liberties.

These concerns were echoed in a meeting of Data Protection Commissioners in Cardiff in September, prompting the release of an unusually strongly worded statementon the issue.

The Commissioners expressed "grave doubt as to the legitimacy and legality of such broad measures". They are also worried about the "excessive costs" to telephone and Internet companies, and note the absence of any similar measures in the United States - a telling observation since the raison d'etre of the idea stems from post September 11 "terrorism investigation requirements".

Undaunted, the UK Government is pressing ahead with last December's Anti-Terrorism Crime and Security Act, which puts the controversial data retention measures on Britain's statute books. The government had hoped to persuade UK ISPs to introduce these measures voluntarily, but ISPs remain unconvinced by the government's arguments and concerned about costs.

MPs are to hold a public inquiry covering data retention and the Internet and its effects on ISPs next month.

Responses to a European Council questionnaire on traffic data retention from member states show governments across Europe taking a similar line on data retention as Britain, with only two significant exceptions.

Marco Cappato, Radical MEP and long term civil liberties campaigner, reports that it should be easy for the Council to find agreement on a common framework decision on data retention, once the "technicalities" can be arranged.

Of the governments surveyed, Denmark "can support" a European instrument, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Spain, Portugal, the UK and Sweden warmly support the idea, with Belgium also backing the proposals, he reports. Finland supports data retention too, even proposing to set a two years period for mandatory data retention, while France underlines that data retention is now "authorised" after its adoption of the European directive.

Cappato reports that the only countries expressing some uncertainties are Austria (due to disagreement between the Federal Chancellery, which is sceptical, and the Ministry of Justice) and Germany. German authorities say that they need proof that the proposed European instrument is compatible with German constitutional law.

Cappato commented: "The EU is giving the bureaucratic and illiberal answer of general surveillance to the demand for security from terrorism. The reading of September 11 tragedy given by major security analysts - who denounced the lack of human intelligence much more that of data collection technology - is therefore disregarded, and EU ministerial offices prepare the ground for a EU legal basis to implement generalised and systematic surveillance of citizens' communications."

"Far from bringing more security to citizens, this move is already diverting energy and resources from more effective intelligence activity," he added. ®

Related Stories

MPs probe impact of data retention laws
UK ISPs oppose data retention
EU data protection chiefs oppose data retention moves
EU to force ISPs and telcos to retain data for one year
MEPs vote for Big Brother
World leaders use terror card to watch all of us. Forever
Spam out, cookies tolerated, data retention remains: EU

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