EU-FBI telecommunications surveillance system: "Negative press" slows progress

Statewatch bulletin vol 10 no 2 (March-May 2000)

An interesting note has appeared which gives the European Commission's report on a meeting of the EU Council of Ministers Police Cooperation Working Party in October 1999. There has been a bit of a mystery surrounding the progress of EU plans to adopt the amendments to the "Requirements" of the law enforcement agencies to intercept telecommunications (phonecalls, e-mails and faxes) (see Statewatch, vol 7 no 1 & & & 5, vol 8 nos 5 & 6, vol 9 no 2 & 6). The "Requirements" to be laid on network and service providers to allow the interception of any communication were first adopted by the EU in January 1995. In 1998 it was proposed to amend these "Requirements" to deal with the internet and satellite telecommunications (in ENFOPOL 98). This EU report was, it was thought, almost finalised in a report dated 15 March 1999 (ENFOPOL 19 of 1999). However, since then this report has gathered dust.

The note, from Directorate B, Unit B/1 Police and Customs Cooperation of the Commission, on the Council's Police Cooperation Working Party held on 13-14 October 1999, says that "progress in this matter is being very slow". It says the Working Group had:

In previous meetings.. discussed that it could be sensible to get some political support from upper instances in the Council for this matter to go forward...

The main reasons for the delay and the apparent lack of "political support" was:

the negative press that this issue has received in the media..

One idea considered to counter this was for the Council to put out a press release of its own but "several delegations.. [thought] this could provoke a chain reaction and further negative press in the media."

Agreement "within a year"

The EU discussions on the associated development to the EU-FBI system, the draft Convention on Mutual Assistance in criminal matters, have taken another turn. The draft Convention includes provisions on the interception of telecommunications to give a legal basis for the imposition of the "Requirements". On the table is a proposal from the European Commission which says that:

Within a year after signature of the Convention, but at the very latest by the entry into force of the Convention, Member States and telecommunications service providers concerned shall elaborate a secure system for submission of interception requests and for transmission of intercepted communications... Member States shall provide the satellite service providers granting direct access with the names of service providers on their territory designated to act as intermediary for the purpose of interception by direct access.

The Convention is expected to be signed on 29-30 May while the entry into force will take 2-3 years.

Iridium collapses

Iridium, the conglomerate which offered to provide "hands-free" access to the EU of all satellite telecommuications passing through its ground station in central Italy has gone bust. A company executive described as follows: "If you believe in god, Iridium is God manifesting himself through us" (see Statewatch, vol 8 no 5).

Sixty-six satellites and $5 billion had been spent by Iridium but only 55,000 customers had signed up. Started in the early nineties the technology was overtaken by the growth of terrestorial GSM phones. The Guardian described the Iridium technology as "laughably old-fashioned".

The EU Council of Ministers had welcomed the offer of Iridium to route all telecommunications without any checks as a "convenient" option. Now the Council will have to wait and see whether the other players still in the field like Globalstar, Teledisc, Skybridge and Spaceway will offer a similar deal.

Meeting Report Police Cooperation Working Group, 13-14 October, Directorate B, Unit B/1 Police and Customs Cooperation, Directorate-General Justice and Home Affairs, 18.10.99; Draft Convention on mutual assistance in criminal matters between Member States of the European Union, ref: 6836/00, COPEN 18, 10.3.00); Observer, 19.3.00; Guardian, 23.3.00.


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