Is Europe building Big Brother?
A lawsuit in Ireland challenges the European Union's aim to collect and store personal data, even as the United Arab Emirates threatens to block BlackBerry until the company makes it easier to monitor information and the Obama administration seeks to circumvent judicial oversight to collect US data online.
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In Ireland at present, telephone data must be retained for three years, but there are currently no provisions requiring Internet service providers to retain data, something both the EU and the Irish government want to change.Skip to next paragraph
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McIntyre says the government already has the upper hand. "In 2002 the Irish government secretly introduced data retention. They did it by ministerial order, and to this day the department of justice has not confirmed it." McIntyre expects the case to be decided by the ECJ.
The Irish departments of justice and communications and their respective ministers declined interview requests. A department of justice spokesperson said in a statement that the new laws are to bring Ireland in line with EU standards "for the detection, investigation and prosecution of serious crime."
The EU itself seems to be of two minds when it comes to Internet privacy. While monitoring and surveillance powers have been greatly expanded, the EU body overseeing the effort to expand data retention to search engines under Smile29 complained in a report that EU members are already collecting more information on citizens than they should and "have scarcely provided statistics on the use of data retained under the Directive, which limits the possibilities to verify the usefulness of data retention."
The group advocates major changes to the law, including a reduction of the maximum retention period, reconsideration of the overall security of traffic data by the European Commission, clarification of the concept of "serious crime" at member state level, and "disclosure to all the relevant stakeholders of the list of the entities authorized to access the data."
According to Mr. Engström of the Pirate Party, the problem with the EU is a democracy deficit: "Most of the power is with commissioners and [other] unelected officials."
Engström also points to the EU's various bureaucracies, often at loggerheads with one another, as a problem.
"It's important to recognize that this is not 'evil'; there is no dark lord pulling the strings, but the EU has become very close to various interests and this in conjunction with an unelected executive is very worrying."
Engström contends that law enforcement agencies are seeking access to data simply because it exists: "These things don't have anything to do with real police work. The measures might catch really stupid criminals bumbling about, but real criminals will know how to get around them."
He also points to the danger of false accusations, complaining that data mining amounts to little more than pattern recognition: "The human brain is fantastic at seeing patterns – even when they don't exist."
Back in Ireland, McIntyre says his fight will go on for just this reason: "You can't have automated crime detection. For some reason that idea is beloved of law enforcement. The related idea is one of stopping people in advance.
"Data mining creates too many false positives. From a commercial perspective it doesn't matter – who cares if you get an irrelevant ad on your Facebook page? But with, say, terrorism, a vanishingly small number of people are engaged so you simply don't have the evidence base from which to profile people."
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