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Data retention

March 22, 2012

Sweden's government has voted in favor of a new data retention directive, putting the country in line with European Union requirements. Privacy advocates are strongly opposed to the data collection measure.

A server with lots of wiring coming out of the back
Image: dapd

On Wednesday, the Swedish parliament passed a new data retention law, putting it in compliance with the 2006 European Union-mandated directive requiring Internet service providers (ISPs) and telecommunications firms to store nearly all their users' data for six months, following a debate in the Riksdag.

The EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem speaks during a press conference in Bosnian capital of Sarajevo, on Friday, Nov. 12, 2010.
Commissioner Cecilia Malström is trying to get all member states to enact data retentionImage: AP

Despite the objections of some parliamentarians, the bill passed with 233 votes in favor, 41 opposed and 19 abstentions.

"Policy based on fear is never successful," wrote Green Party member Maria Ferm in an open letter to parliament. "The Data Retention directive in no way meets the requirements we have on new legislation. There is a disproportionate invasion of privacy in relation to the potential benefits."

'A useful tool'

The new law is the result of a 2006 directive from the EU, ordering member states to store telephone, email and Internet usage data, as well as the location of mobile phones when calls were made, even on unsuccessful calls, according to Nils Weidstam, a consultant with the Swedish IT industry association IT- och telekomföretagen. He estimated the data stored on all Swedish consumers would equate to approximately 67 terabytes per six month period.

"It is a necessary and effective tool that makes it easier to uncover some crimes," Justice Minister Beatrice Ask has said, adding that the six-month timeframe was the shortest retention period the country could opt for under the EU directive.

The directive has been the law of the land in nearly all of the 27-member bloc since its passage in 2006. It was passed in the wake of the terrorist bombings in Madrid and London, in 2004 and 2005, respectively, as a tool for law enforcement to use against criminal suspects.

But opponents of the new law say the cons far outweigh any potential advantages to storing the data.

"If today's politicians understood that these surveillance tools are much, much more invasive than what Stasi ever had access to, maybe that would cause some afterthought," said Rick Falkvinge, the Swedish founder of the Pirate Party, in a DW interview.

"At the end of the day, these politicians must be replaced. No matter what the causes are, they are committing inexcusable acts against the population, and will continue to do so as long as allowed to."

Germany debates data

The data retention debate has also once again reared its head in Germany, where the government is facing possible legal action from Brussels over enacting its own data storage law. Germany's previous data retention law was struck down by the Federal Constitutional Court in 2010 as unconstitutional. Courts in the Czech Republic and Romania have also made similar rulings.

The EU is threatening Berlin to take the German government to the European Court of Justice if action is not taken to create a new data retention scheme. The most likely outcome of any legal proceedings would be a fine against Germany.

Government spokesman Steffen Seibert announced on Wednesday that "talks have been re-launched with renewed energy between the relevant departments with the aim of a solution."

But little progress has been made in the German parliament on the issue.

Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger speaks at a police congress in Berlin
Germany's Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger proposed a Quick Freeze schemeImage: dapd

German Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger has been arguing for a "quick freeze" scheme, which would require probable cause to secure records from an ISP. This has been criticized, though, by the interior ministry as it would not meet the EU requirements.

Malte Spitz, a Green Party member of the German parliament, famously acquired and published his mobile phone location and communication records in an interactive map in 2011, as a way to show the extent of these records.


Joe McNamee, coordinator of European Digital Rights, an Internet advocacy group in Brussels, told DW he feels these legal tactics by the EU and its Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström, herself Swedish, amount to little more than bullying.

"The experience in Sweden and in the rest of Europe shows that data retention is unnecessary, while there is growing evidence of the damage that it does to privacy and freedom of communications," McNamee said in an e-mail.

"As a member of the first Commission that took an oath to uphold the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the Union, it is more than disappointing to see Commissioner Malmström pressure Sweden into implementing this unnecessary and, therefore, illegal directive. It is more than disappointing to see the coercion of member states to implement the directive from a former liberal parliamentarian who opposed the directive."

In Sweden, the new law goes into effect on May 1, and Germany's goverment is expecting to receive a warning letter from the EU demanding the directive be followed within the next few weeks.

Author: Stuart Tiffen
Editor: Cyrus Farivar