Same tensions between private rights and war against terror exist in Europe as well
in US Europe is closely following the controversy in the United States
over news that the Bush administration eavesdropped on some people
without court approval. Lisa Bryant reports for VOA from Paris that
when it comes to eavesdropping, the same tensions between private
rights and the war against terror exist in Europe as well.

Days after London bombing suspect Osman Hussain fled Britain last
July, he was arrested in Rome. Police had traced Mr. Hussain’s journey
across the United Kingdom, France and Italy after the botched July 21
suicide attacks via conversations on his mobile phone.

Whether police needed or obtained court approval to listen in on
Hussain’s telephone conversations is unclear. But Bob Ayers, a
security expert at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in
London, is skeptical about whether warrants were issued. "This guy
went through three nation states," Mr. Ayers said. "He started in the
U.K., went through France and ended up in Italy. And I don’t know
about you — but have you tried to get a court to authorize phone taps
in three nation states in a near real time manner?"

Figuring out what is legal or not when it comes to government
eavesdropping is no easy matter. And Europe, Mr. Ayers and other
experts say, is no exception.

"The laws across Europe — as indeed across the entire world — vary
on a state by state basis and they also vary within the state. For
example, some nation states prohibit the police from collecting
information on their own citizens. But they don’t prohibit their own
intelligence organizations from collecting information on their own
citizens."

In principle, the European Union has two pieces of legislation to
protect individuals from eavesdropping. One is the European Convention
on Human Rights. The other is a convention regarding data protection.

Sergio Carrera is a senior researcher at the Center for European
Policy Studies in Brussels. He says the data protection convention was
a big issue a couple of years ago when it came to European concerns
over sharing information on airline passengers traveling to the United
States.

"The European framework of protection as regards data and privacy is
much, much higher than the one existing in the United States. And this
is where the main discussions between E.U. officials and U.S.
officials have been from the very beginning — as regards to transfer
of data between airline, and so on."

In reality, Mr. Carrera says, the scope of the European human rights
and data protection conventions is limited. And its hard to ensure
member nations are complying with them. In 2003, the E.U. agreed to
Washington’s requests to share airline passenger data — despite
objections by the European parliament that doing so violated European
privacy rights.

More recently, the E.U. has been working to establish European-wide
counterterrorism measures after the September 11, 2001 attacks in the
U.S. and the subsequent terrorist bombings in Madrid and London. At
the moment, the block is weighing two competing proposals regarding
the fight against terrorism. Mr. Carrera says the one sponsored by the
European Commission offers more privacy guarantees than the other,
sponsored by individual nations.

And earlier this month, the European Parliament approved new rules
requiring telephone companies to retain customer telephone and
Internet records for up to two years, for use in anti-terror
investigations.

But most policing powers still lie with individual European nations.
Several countries have been working to strengthen their anti-terrorism
laws in recent months — including through measures that broaden state
powers to monitor private citizens.

Italy, for example, passed new anti-terrorism measures in July which
require public telephone and Internet operators to make passport
photocopies of every customer seeking to use their services.

And in France, the National Assembly passed an antiterrorism bill last
month that would provide greater official access to phone and Internet
records. The French legislation would also increase video surveillance
in public spaces.

Still, some experts believe a long-standing controversy over
government eavesdropping may serve as a check in the future. France
recently wrapped up a series of trials involving wiretapping that took
place two decades ago under the presidency of Francois Mitterrand. The
operation was ostensibly aimed at foiling terrorist plots. Instead,
the unit eavesdropped on telephone conversations of journalists,
lawyers and businessmen for Mr. Mitterrand’s own personal ends.

Jean-Francois Daguzan is a senior researcher for the Foundation for
Strategic Research in Paris.

Mr. Daguzan says before the Mitterrand scandal, eavesdropping was
easier because it could fall into the category of state secrets. But
now, he says, there is a growing demand in France for transparency. If
government wiretapping takes place, he believes it will be within a
legal context.

Others are not so sure. Mr. Ayers of the Royal Institute believes
governments in Europe and elsewhere will continue to be torn between
privacy laws and the need to protect their citizens.

"There’s human rights in a general sense, and they all need to be
respected," he said. "But then there’s the question of a threat of
citizens of a nation: Whether or not the rights of the threat agent,
al Qaida for example, whether their human rights outweigh the right of
the citizens of the rest of the nation state to live without being
blown up gong to work in the morning."

Reports in the media and elsewhere also suggest Britain and France in
particular, may have spied on private citizens without warrants well
before the 2001 terrorist attacks. The reports suggested that Britain
was a member of Echelon — an American global surveillance system that
allegedly listens in on millions of telephone calls, faxes and e-mails
daily. Australia, Canada and New Zealand were reported to be part of
the network as well. Reports also suggested that France operated a
similar initiative, which some observers dub Frenchelon. The countries
officially deny the existence of either body.

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