EU takes the Janus position

The UK government has on many occasions shown itself to be more interested in spying on its subjects than on fixing the recession — and this week’s no different but the European Union seems with one hand to be aiding and abetting such activity, and with the other hand, bashing the UK round the head for something similar.

This week brings us news that the European Union has followed up its threat of legal action against the beleaguered New Labour administration by instating a case against the UK for allowing BT to test Phorm’s deep packet inspection and behavioural advertising. Customers were unaware that their data was being examined by BT for commercial purposes.

As a result, the EU has told the UK that it must comply with the EU Directive on privacy and electronic communications, which is equivalent to a legally enforceable requirement, and which mandates that member states must “ensure confidentiality of communications and related data traffic data by prohibiting unlawful interception and surveillance” unless the users concerned have consented.

The legal case follows numerous letters, to which the UK government responded that it was happy that the Phorm system meets European data laws, and then ignored further requests for clarification.

On the other hand however, the EU’s Data Retention Directive has provoked widespread condemnation. This compels member states to store users’ communication information for a full year starting on 15 March 2009. It means that every email, phone call and text message sent or received will have to be recorded.

The thinking behind it is that: “retention of data has proved to be such a necessary and effective investigative tool for law enforcement in several Member States, and in particular concerning serious matters such as organised crime and terrorism, it is necessary to ensure that retained data are made available to law enforcement authorities.”

That’s despite the assertion in the directive that, in a democracy, “everyone has the right to respect for his private life and his correspondence”. It does however go on to say that the directive: “relates only to data generated or processed as a consequence of a communication or a communication service and does not relate to data that are the content of the information communicated.”

In other words, it’s the contact not the content that will be stored — although this does include your user ID, IP address, DSL line (where appropriate) and the date and time of contact.

Even so, it seems contradictory for the EU to be lambasting the UK for spying on Internet traffic, while on the other hand it’s insisting that your phone bill be made available to the local police forces.