Europeans compete with U.S. in threatening civil liberties

San Jose Examiner | Sep 11, 2008

By J.D. Tuccille

The U.S. government gets rapped frequently for its growing tendency to use wiretaps, engage in surveillance and compile information about people who are doing nothing more than exercising their right to criticize political leaders — or even people who are just going about their daily, apolitical business. Especially since 9/11, but even for decades preceding that event, government officials have engaged in a disturbing frenzy of nosiness about the communications, activities and opinions of private citizens.

But, in certain circles, it’s become the norm to assume that the U.S. government is the worst of the worst. That it practices control-freakery to an extent that shocks, shocks our friends overseas. Would the sophisticated French ever engage in such abusive shenanigans.

Well, yes, they would. And so would the Germans, and the Dutch, and …

This week come reports that French President Nicolas Sarkozy is backing off a bit from plans for a new security database called EDVIGE. Says the BBC:

“Civil liberties groups complained it would turn France into a police state, spying on its own citizens.

The new system, known by its acronym EDVIGE, was set up to allow security officials to monitor anyone considered a possible threat to public order.

But there were also concerns the database could collate personal information, such as sexual orientation.”

EDVIGE doesn’t actually come out of the blue — it’s just an improvement on a database that’s already in place. Still, the French government’s step-down is a rare victory on a continent where state officials traditionally do as much snooping as they please (although it’s not clear whether the EDVIGE retreat also applies to the less-well-known CRISTINA database, which is equally intrusive).

Addressing France’s peculiar history, Charles Bremner of the Times of London wrote last year:

“Scandal over the antics of police spies are a regular feature of French elections. The air is once again thick with malicious leaks and charges of dirty tricks by the Renseignements Généraux, the police intelligence service. Unusually, though, this time the boss of the shadowy RG has emerged to explain why France needs to keep secret tabs on its citizens.

Let’s look at this old exception française: the way that France considers it normal that 4,000 agents and many more thousands of part-time informers, are busy in their midst reporting on them. Even in these times of “homeland security” (awful expression) and wars on terror, no other democracy runs a domestic spying service on this scale and few would tolerate it.”

But France is hardly the only transgressor. In 2006, Slate’s Eric Weiner reported:

“The three worst offenders are not countries you would suspect of playing fast and loose with civil liberties: Britain, Italy, and the Netherlands. Italian officials conduct tens of thousands of wiretaps each year. Technically, judicial approval is needed but since judges in Italy are “investigative,” meaning they act more like our prosecutors, there is essentially no check on law enforcement’s ability to eavesdrop. …

The Netherlands has the highest rate of wiretapping of any European country—a surprising fact, given the country’s reputation for cozy coffee bars, not invasive police tactics. Dutch police can tap any phone they like, so long as the crime under investigation carries at least a three-year jail term.”

This isn’t old news, either. In June, the Swedish government approved a new law permiiting surveillance of e-mails and phone calls that cross the country’s borders. And government officials filed a complaint against a blogger who published documents revealing that Swedish authorities have long engaged in domestic surveillance.

And Germany, this summer, played host to large street protests against the growing surveillance of everyday life by state officials.

A new report (PDF) from Statewatch, an organization that monitors civil liberties in Europe, points out:

“In 2006 a Directive on the mandatory retention of all communications data across the EU was adopted. Service providers are obliged to keep and give agencies access to records of all phone-calls, mobile phone calls (and their location), faxes, e-mails and internet usage. This year most EU states that had not done so are implementing this at national level. In short, records of all communications by everyone in the EU are held and can be accessed by agencies in connection with “serious crime, as defined by each Member State in its national law” which varies from member states to member state or for suspicion of a “serious crime”.

In 2004 a Regulation on EU passports required the taking of fingerprints (biometrics) from all applying for one. Again there was a time-lag in the implementation at national level. But from 2009 onwards millions of people across the EU will have to attend special centres to be interviewed (to prove who they are) then compulsorily finger-printed.

The finger-printing of everyone applying for a visa to visit the EU from third countries is already underway and fingerprinting of resident third country nationals has been agreed. Discussions are underway on extending the taking of fingerprints for national ID cards as these are used for travel within the Schengen area.

It is sobering to note that the mass surveillance of all telecommunications and mass fingerprinting of all are two proposals that have not been proposed in the USA – thus the EU is set to become the most surveilled place in the world.”

None of this should be taken as an excuse for the U.S. government’s compulsive snoopiness. But it’s just an unfortunate truth that America’s domestic spooks are boldly going down a path Europeans blazed a long time ago.

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