General discussion


Wiretapping, European-Style. Think Bush's NSA surveillance is bad???.....

By sleepin'dawg ·
Wiretapping, European-Style. - Think Bush's warrantless NSA surveillance is bad?

Wiretapping, European-Style.
Think Bush's warrantless NSA surveillance is bad? Wait till you hear
what the British government does.
By Eric Weiner
Updated Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2006, at 6:39 AM ET

For Europeans, scolding the Bush administration for everything from
Guantanamo to the Iraq War to secret CIA prisons has become a
full-time job. But when it comes to the American scandal over
President Bush's warrantless wiretaps, there's been a curious
reaction from the other side of the Atlantic: silence. Where is the
European outrage?

European restraint may arise from a fear of hypocrisy. The fact is
that in much of Europe wiretapping is de rigueur?practiced more
regularly and with less oversight than in the United States. Most
Europeans either don't know about this or, more likely, simply don't

The extensive European taps are not new developments, made in the
heat of passion after the London and Madrid bombings. European
governments have been bugging phones for decades. In theory, the
European Convention on Human Rights forbids "arbitrary wiretapping,"
but, as we've learned in the United States, arbitrary is in the ear
of the wiretapper.

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.

In Britain, police have an even easier time tapping phones. The home
secretary, a Cabinet minister, approves all wiretaps. Judges have
nothing to do with it.

Or, to put it in American terms, imagine Homeland Secretary Michael
Chertoff authorizing wiretaps of anyone he deems fit?only without
the pesky questions from the media and Congress.

Gus Hosein, an analyst with Privacy International, calculates that,
given the number of wiretaps in the U.K., the home secretary
approves a new wiretap every few seconds. "Obviously, it's
impossible to give it the attention it needs," says Hosein. Britain
did recently establish an Interception of Communications
Commissioner, but he has limited authority; his main job is tallying
the number of annual wiretaps. The only Brits safe from wiretapping
are members of Parliament, though after the London bombing, there is
now a move afoot to revoke their immunity.

Britain's lax attitude toward telephone privacy dates back to the
1920s, when the British government owned the phone company. There
was no need for court approval of wiretaps, since, in a way, the
government would be asking itself for that approval.

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.

Washington's biggest European critic?France?also has a serious
wiretapping habit, as Marc Perelman points out in Foreign Policy:
"In addition to judicially ordered taps there are also
'administrative wiretaps' decided by security agencies under the
control of the government." Perelman argues that most French know
about these policies but don't seem to care, despite clear cases of
abuse in the past. Most prominent is the Elys?e Scandal?named after
the palace where the late President Francois Mitterrand set up an
undercover listening room. Mitterrand's operatives tapped the calls
of his political enemies: lawyers, businessmen, journalists, and
even the actress and Chanel model Carole Bouquet. This took place in
the mid-1980s but only surfaced recently, and 12 conspirators were
brought to trial. What's interesting?and disturbing?about the Elys?e
Scandal is that at the time, French authorities had justified the
surveillance as a necessary tool to fight terrorism.

Earlier this month, in one of the more bizarre cases of
Euro-tapping, Greek officials acknowledged that 100 cell-phone lines
were tapped during the 2004 Athens Olympic Games. Oddly, all those
targeted were involved with national security, including Prime
Minster Kostas Karamanlis. Vodafone, the mobile phone company,
learned of the wiretapping when customers complained they were not
receiving their messages and calls. An investigation revealed that
someone had installed spy software. It's not clear who was tapping
the phones or why.

European police aren't listening only to conversations; now they
have access to other details of phone use. In December, the European
parliament approved new rules requiring telecommunications companies
to retain customers' telephone and Internet records for up to two
years. The directive passed in record time, despite objections from
phone companies and Internet providers (all that record-keeping is
expensive), as well as privacy advocates. This means that European
authorities can tell not only what was said in a phone call, but who
was on the other end and where they were located. The United States
lobbied hard for this new EU policy, even though telecommunications
companies in this country are under no such record-keeping

When it comes to consumer information, Europeans guard their privacy
much more fiercely than Americans do. European companies can't
legally share most consumer information, and cases of identity theft
are much less common.

So, why are Europeans so nonchalant when it comes to government
eavesdropping? One reason is that sometimes it works. When Osman
Hussain, a suspect in the botched July 21 London bombing, fled
Britain, police traced his journey?across the United Kingdom to
France and then Italy, where he was arrested?by tapping his cell

There is a cultural explanation, too. Europeans tend to trust their
private information with governments, not corporations. So, while
they wouldn't dream of divulging their credit card number to a
telemarketer they will gladly hand it over to a government clerk.
The state is seen as more benevolent than those greedy, Americanized

And Europeans have no equivalent to the American Constitution, which
enshrines the right of individuals to be free from government
coercion. Privacy International's Hosein draws on this
constitutional tradition when he explains why Europeans don't
bristle at wiretapping that would appall Americans. In Europe, he
notes, there are plenty of pressure groups fighting for the rights
of consumers, but very few lobbying on behalf of citizens. There is
no European equivalent of the ACLU, pushing back against government
intrusions. So, next time you're in Europe, feel free to hand out
your credit card number willy-nilly. Just be careful what you say on
the phone.

Dawg ]:)

This conversation is currently closed to new comments.

Thread display: Collapse - | Expand +

All Comments

Collapse -


by Tony Hopkinson In reply to Wiretapping, European-Sty ...

Your's imbued with a healthy distrust of government our's was a verbal agreement by the government, and very trustworthy blokes they were too.
Bit of an update required on both sides of the pond as far as I can see. Whichver of us does it first gets to call the other uncivilised.

Collapse -

Does not quite compare

by lowlands In reply to Wiretapping, European-Sty ...

I don't have the numbers of the amount of wiretaps in the Netherlands. But I do know they do not compare to the wiretaps by the NSA here in the USA.

In the Netherlands a wiretap will only be authorized for an ongoing investigation. And then only for a crime that carries a penalty of 4 years (not three).

The AIVD (Dutch Intelligence Service) can do wiretaps as well. Even without an ongoing criminal investigation. These taps however have to be authorized by the Prime Minister and the ministers of Interior Affairs, Justice and Traffic (had to kind of translate that last one)

As you can see there might be a lot of wiretapping going on, but not without oversight.

Related Discussions

Related Forums