Essential weapon or inefficient tool? MEPs questioned the storage of data on phone calls and online use in the fight against terrorism and organised crime during question hour on 23 October. Five political groups quizzed home affairs commissioner Cecilia Malmström about the shortcomings of the EU's data retention directive and how they could be overcome.
Controversy over data retention directive
Every time you make a phone call, surf the internet or send an email, some of your data will be stored for six to 24 months. Since 2006, the EU Data Retention Directive requires member states to keep such data, while they in turn oblige service providers to be able to identify a communication's source, destination and location.
The directive should have been implemented by 2007, but suffered delays because it proved to be controversial in many member states. Constitutional courts in Romania, the Czech Republic and Germany raised objections and it is still not in force in all member states.
Push for revamped directive
In 2011, the Commission published an evaluation that underlined the usefulness of data retention in the fight against crime and terrorism. However, it also said that improvements were necessary due to how it affected the right to privacy.
A clear deadline for the publication of a proposal to reform the data retention directive is now being demanded by MEPs from five different political groups (Christian Democrat, Liberal Democrat, Social Democrat, Greens and European United Left-Nordic Green Left).
They already called attention to the issue through a round of written and oral questions in the first half of 2012.
Home affairs commissioner Cecilia Malmström insisted during question hour in Strasbourg that data retention was needed to protect people from harm. She added that law enforcement in EU had continously stressed the need for access to this data, which is retained under strict safeguards and only available for a limited period of time.
However, Ms Malmström admitted a number of areas in the directive needed to be improved. A revised directive should include:
reduced and harmonised retention period
clear scope of types of data to be retained
minimum standards for access and use of data
stronger data protection
consistent approach to reimbursing operators' costs
Criticism from MEPs
Alexander Alvaro, a German Liberal Democrat, voiced the Parliament’s growing impatience: “The discussion has been going on since 2005, but technical issues remain unresolved and legal and economic questions have not been cleared up." He also pointed out that many citizens opposed the retention of data. “We have had enough of this and we hope for a European solution.”
Judith Sargentini, a Dutch Green MEP, demanded a framework to guarantee the privacy of citizens as the current one infringes on people's privacy. According to her, member states could not even confirm that data retention was even useful. “It is time to do away with this directive and search for an alternative.”
“We need to strike a balance between the need for security and protecting freedoms," said French Social Democrat Sylvie Guillaume. The protection of personal data was enshrined in the European Charter of Fundamental Rights and “that is why we should act”.
German Christian Democrat Axel Voss pointed to a growing number of cases of bullying and cyber mobbing on the internet. "This self-imposed justice is not what we want.” An international standard for data retention was needed that would balance citizens' rights with prosecution. He said it was important that a new proposal would also allow proper implementation of the directive. “We have European commitments, but we have to make sure we can implement them.”
“The Commission should face reality and admit that it has failed," said Cornelia Ernst, a German member of the European United Left-Nordic Green Left group. The implementation of the directive was different in all member states. “If the Commission hasn't got anything else to propose, you ought to delay this directive until the ruling of the European Court of Justice, and otherwise we call for a ban on EU wide retention of unnecessary data.”