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Terrorism no excuse for privacy breaches, says EU regulator

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Terrorism and organised crime should not be used as excuses for passing laws which undermine people's privacy and data protection rights, according to the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS). Existing laws do not need changed, he said.

In an update on data protection in Europe, EDPS Peter Hustinx said that security concerns were not an adequate reason to undermine data protection principles.

"It is a misconception that protection of privacy and personal data holds back the fight against terrorism and organised crime," said Hustinx. "Current legislation does allow, for instance, law enforcement to check suspicious phone numbers found in a computer."

The EDPS has recently advised EU bodies on controversial issues of data protection such as the disputed transfer of airline passenger data to the US, telecoms data retention and EU information technology systems.

New laws and practices are being introduced in the aftermath of terrorist attacks in the US, Madrid and London which put security concerns and data protection in direct conflict. An EU deal cut with authorities in the US to transfer airline passenger data was opposed by the EU Parliament and struck down by the European Court of Justice on procedural grounds.

Other legislation causing controversy are the laws introduced by member states to comply with the Data Retention Directive. The Directive calls for telephone, email and internet data to be kept for up to two years by telecoms firms and is being opposed by civil rights groups.

One group, Digital Rights Ireland, is taking the Irish government to court over the Irish law based on the Directive and hopes to overturn the Directive itself. The Irish state is also taking a legal challenge against the Directive, but on procedural, not privacy, grounds.

Hustinx said that the idea that a state must choose either good security or good data protection is flawed. "Good data protection actually goes hand in hand with legitimate crime fighting because it increases the quality of databases and at the same time makes sure that only the right people can access them," he said.

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