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Europe

Big Brother or Protector?

How much state access to telephone and Internet data is too much? The raging debate takes a new turn as the EU examines an anti-terror proposal that would save data across the board for up to three years.

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Could her chats with mom be saved for three years?

At a meeting of interior and justice ministers on Thursday, several EU members suggested allowing unprecedented, wide-ranging access to emails and telephone conversations. In an unusual coalition, Great Britain, France, Sweden and Ireland proposed saving the content of all telecommunications traffic for a period of up to three years.

Anti-terror investigators have long been able to trace the details of an individual's Internet use; the same goes for text messages and telephone and cell phone calls. But such tracing can only be done when the service providers save the data -- in most European countries, a sensitive legal topic.

In Germany, data protection law requires telecom and Internet service providers to erase its customers' data after six months at the latest. But security authorities say this is too soon, at least in terms of fighting terrorism and tracking criminal activity. They have long pushed for more general, long-term data storage systems.

Most are skeptical

Although EU justice and interior ministers agreed to form a task force on the issue, most member states voiced strong skepticism over the proposal, saying such a scheme would stumble over constitutionality issues and pose an unbearable financial burden for telecommunications firms.

Brigitte Zypries, Justizministerin

Justice Minister Brigitte Zypries

German Justice Minister Brigitte Zypries was one of those who spoke out against the measure. She said she feared such wide-ranging measures would trample constitutional rights, and questioned whether telecom firms could bear the costs associated with saving a wide array of data for as long as three years.

"The recording of telephone connection data is an encroachment on the basic rights," of German law, Zypries told dpa news agency before meeting with her European colleagues in Brussels Thursday.

Catching terrorists

Zypries did agree that a better exchange of data on cross-border anti-terror law enforcement is needed. And she acknowledged it would be good to save long term data that could be directly used in law enforcement -- although she couldn't say how authorities could tell which data that would be.

Bombenanschläge in Madrid Miniquiz März 2004

Bombing of the Atocha railway station, Madrid

Proponents of the measure, however, have pointed to the importance of expanding state access to private data in tracking the perpetrators of the bombing attacks in Madrid in March. The terrorists were apprehend based on data taken from mobile phone conversations.

Still, those in charge of data protection in Germany say they want to proceed cautiously.

Question of cost

"Free and anonymous communication is a prerequisite for democracy," Peter Büttgen, spokesman for Germany's Federal Data Protection Commission in Bonn told the dpa. He said he doubts the utility of such wide-ranging data storage, but does agree that in the case of concrete suspeicion, investigators should have the right to to search Internet records.

For its part, the Federation of German Industries (BDI) argued that the measure would be too expensive. The cost to large telecommunications firms would be in the hundreds of millions of euros, federation expert Christiane Eichele said.

Even worse off would be the smaller and mid-size Internet companies, who would have to pay as much as €50 millionen ($66 million) to put the measures into effect. "They would go right out of business," Eichele said

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