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UK ministers have gone on the offensive in Europe in a bid to persuade MEPs to push through laws on data retention.

The draft legislation in question was put forward by individual member states, rather than the commission, in the wake of the Madrid bombings. It would require communications service providers to keep rather loosely defined user and traffic data for a minimum of a year, and possibly indefinitely.

Regular readers might remember that the proposal is widely considered to be unworkable, expensive to implement, invasive, and unnecessary, as well as possibly being illegal. The European Parliament has voted overwhelmingly to back calls for the draft to be abandoned.

Setting details like these aside, Jack Straw (Foreign Secretary) and Charles Clarke (Home Secretary) have used visits to Brussels to urge MEPs to overcome industry fears about costs, and concerns about civil liberties, and pass the necessary laws.

According to a Guardian report Charles Clarke said yesterday: "The question of civil liberties has to be treated in a proportionate way. It is a different civil liberty question whether you have CCTV or not, or whether you retain telecommunications data, or whether you have biometrics on an ID card, to whether somebody is tortured in a country to which they are sent."

Addressing the Civil Liberties Committee of the European Parliament, he said that he wanted was data retention legislation as quickly as possible, even if it meant reviving the original draft. Sources close to the EU tell us that Clarke did not respond directly when Dutch MEP, Kathalijne Buitenweg, asked whether it was wise, when the directive has been declared illegal, to set the Council of Ministers on a collission course with Parliament and possibly the Commission.

Meanwhile, Jack Straw said that fears about the costs of implementing data retention laws were overstated, and added that ISPs, telcos and mobile operators are not the "most impoverished" of firms.

"There may be some costs but it is surely a cost we ought to pay for the preservation of human life," he said, according to the BBC.

The Labour government, both at home in the UK and in its activities in Europe, certainly has a distinguished track record of trying to keep tabs on people in cyberspace. Let's not forget RIPA, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, which gives authorities the power to force a person to disclose encrypted information, and in some cases, relinquish encryption keys.

Then in 2001, the UK government negotiated and then signed the Council of Europe Cybercrime Convention (still not ratified); it held up agreement on the telecom-specific data protection directive insisting on text being put in article 15 to say that nothing in the directive prevented Member States from implementing data retention; supported and voted for Danish Presidency Conclusions which included Conclusion no. 6:

Member States consider possible and appropriate means of identifying the users of prepaid mobile telephone cards with a view to facilitating the application of the interception measures recognized by the Council

As to whether the original draft will be re-animated, the jury is still out. "I think everyone knows that rushed legislation is rarely good legislation," says Joe McNamee, EU policy director at Political Intelligence.

"Whenever there is an attack, the political - but not the practical and technical - reality changes somewhat, making certain arguments more easy to accept," he added. "When you see headlines like the Observer "Email spying 'could have stopped killers', you can see this quite clearly." ®

Related stories

UK police chase pics, email, phone records in bomber hunt
Europe's data retention laws: dead or alive?
MEPs to vote on 'invasive' data retention plans
EC wants to cap data retention laws
EU's data retention laws could be illegal

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