Europe's big brothers
As they prepare to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, European governments must do more than just congratulate themselves on the continued appeal of fundamental freedoms.
As they prepare to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, European governments must do more than just congratulate themselves on the continued appeal of fundamental freedoms. Our right to respect for private life is at risk from undue interference by state agencies.
Surveillance systems no longer just watch. High-definition CCTV is combined with face-recognition software; motorway cameras can read car licence plates and track selected cars; a new generation of satellite-based surveillance tools are being developed; computer programs can monitor, screen and analyse billions of calls and emails simultaneously, in real time; and new software can supposedly identify "suspicious behaviour" or "hostile intent".
The security services have developed virtually undetectable bugs, tracing technologies and "spy ware" that can be surreptitiously installed on a suspect's personal computer. Last month, the lower house in the German parliament approved draft legislation giving the police the power to conduct "remote searches" of personal computers. Last week, the EU adopted a new strategy on "cyber crime" that proposes "remote searches" and "cyber patrols".
The coming years will see the mandatory fingerprinting of all EU passport holders, the creation of sprawling central government databases and new data-matching systems that link the fingerprint and DNA databases to EU border control and police information systems. A new generation of biometric identity documents and handheld fingerprint scanners linked to these information systems has the potential to transform policing on the streets as well as security checks at airports.
It is becoming more and more difficult to identify the line between the individual right to privacy on the one hand and the right of state agents to access highly personal information on the other. Irrationally, governments tend now to view laws that safeguard the collection, storing and sharing of personal information as obstacles to effective counter-terrorism measures.
Judicial and democratic controls are falling by the wayside. The UK's "data retention" regime, for example, has removed the obligation on the police to seek judicial authorisation for access to telecoms records; all that is required is the consent of a senior officer. Last year, the UK police force – which now has direct access to the larger customer databases – used these new powers some 500,000 times. As mandatory data retention is extended to internet service providers, this type of surveillance will only increase.
EU law has also placed obligations on the financial and air travel sectors to retain customer records for long periods for police purposes. Combining these and other datasets creates a previously unimaginably detailed picture of our lives and interests, our cultural, religious and political affiliations, and our financial and medical health.
As Sir Ken Macdonald, the former director of public prosecutions, wisely commented recently, we need to think carefully about the type of brave new world we are building for ourselves.
If the human right to privacy is to survive a generation, never mind another 60 years, then European societies must have a serious discussion about surveillance techniques, their limits and how to control them. This will not undermine our security but secure our freedom and democracy.
Thomas Hammarberg is the Council of Europe commissioner for human rights and Ben Hayes is an associate director of Statewatch.org and a researcher with the Transnational Institute.