Wiretapping and retention of users’ data by government agencies has increased across Europe in the last years. The trend has been thoroughly analyzed in a report by the European Commission.
In the report on Data Retention Directive, the statistics from certain former communist countries particularly stand out. Requests for retained traffic data increased significantly within a year, between 2008 and 2009, in Czech Republic (from 131,560 to 280,271), Latvia (from 16,892 to 26,096) and Estonia (from 4,490 to 8,410). Requests decreased a little in Lithuania (from 85,315 to 72 473), while Poland, which had not provided a figure for 2008, registered more than 1 million requests in 2009.
The report does not suggest specific explanation for this trend, but it mentions the “size of population, crime trends, purpose limitations and conditions for access, and costs of acquiring data” as relevant factors for variances across countries.
Wiretapping is considered an instrument of criminal justice, used for law enforcement purposes. Each country has different laws on the practice, but some are more loosely regulated than others. In Poland, The Economist observes, there are no restrictions on passing the data collected to countries with which it has an agreement, even if the information is then used for authoritarian purposes, like prosecuting political opponents.
Wiretapping has increased outside the EU, too, and not always legally. In Serbia, the Ombudsman Sasa Jankovic and Information Commissioner Rodoljub Sabic went as far as requesting the Constitutional Court to issue a temporary measure to forbid police from collecting information on citizens’ communications without a court order.
Petar Kovacevic, the director of the Agency for Protection of Personal Data in Bosnia and Herzegovina, told the Southeast European Times that, given the terms dictated by the law, and the number of phone numbers that were tapped, the courts would have had to approve 5,000 special investigative actions in the last three years, approximately five per day, which raises suspicions on the legality of these actions.
Russia is certainly not immune from the practice, either. Legal wiretaps have almost doubled from around 265,000 in 2007 to more than 466,000 in 2011, even while rejections of requests decreased, writes RIA Novosti. Andrei Soldatov, editor in chief of Agentura.ru, an online secret services think-tank, observes that “a lack of accountability and oversight makes the practice more politicized and prone to abuse,” according to Radio Free Europe.
According to Joe McNamee, the Advocacy Coordinator of the European Digital Rights organization, the increase in the practice of wiretapping is due to law enforcers’ improved awareness on how much data is generated through online services and how this can be processed. He thinks the requests for traffic data soared because “not only is Internet usage higher than ever before, but the Internet services used collect far more data than ever before.”
Image taken from the film “The Lives of Others”