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Survey: Chilling effect of indiscriminate data retention causes wide-spread harms

European Parliament Freedom, democracy and transparency Press releases

In the run-up to tomorrow’s ruling by the French Constitutional Court on communications data retention, a new opinion poll confirms that data retention causes massive social problems because it discourages confidential communications.

Mass surveillance is at the expense of the population

A representative YouGov survey conducted in nine EU countries confirms serious chilling effects of indiscriminately collecting information on the contacts and the location of the entire population. More than a third of the respondents (34%) would refrain from seeking counselling from a marriage counsellor, a psychotherapist or a rehab clinic by phone, mobile phone or email if they knew that their contact was being recorded. (Germany: 45% Austria: 42%, France: 38%, Belgium: 35%, The Netherlands: 34%, Sweden: 33%, Czech Republic: 26% and Spain: 13%)

“When countless citizens in emergency situations no longer seek anonymous advice, the result will be violence and possibly fatalities,” comments MEP and civil rights activist Patrick Breyer (Pirate Party), who commissioned the survey. “Data retention is the first surveillance law directed against the entire population. Doctors, lawyers, works councils, psychologists and counselling centres suffer just as much from this mass surveillance policy as the press, which relies on confidential sources. The distinction between content and communications meta-data is no longer relevant. We know today, according to the current state of research, that metadata allow at least as sensitive conclusions as the content of private communications.”

A judgement for Luxembourg, Brussels and Berlin

On Friday, 25 February, the French Constitutional Court (Conseil Constitutionnel) will rule on the constitutionality of data retention in France. The decision may be groundbreaking and influence ongoing proceedings before the European Court of Justice (ECJ) on data retention laws in France, Ireland and Germany. In Brussels, the ruling affects current plans by the EU Commission for a new push to introduce obligations for the mass retention of communications data throughout Europe. In Berlin, the ruling will be read in the context of plans by the new government to abolish Germany’s data retention law.

Majority rejects data retention

According to the YouGov survey, only 39% of all respondants in the EU support data retention for non-suspects, while 42% oppose it.

The survey was commissioned by the Pirate Party MEP Patrick Breyer (Pirate Party, Greens/European Free Alliance Group), who in the past filed a constitutional complaint against the German law on data retention in Germany. Citizens from the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, France, Austria, the Czech Republic, Spain, Sweden and Belgium were surveyed. Commenting on the survey results, Breyer explains:

“The survey results demonstrate once again how dramatic the consequences of indiscriminate data retention are for the population. If people forgo important medical and family counselling for fear of surveillance, the results are catastrophic. In many cases, the lives and health of potential victims of violence can only be protected with the help of anonymous counselling (e.g. telephone counselling, hotlines). Many potential perpetrators are only willing to accept help under the protection of anonymity, whereby they can often be dissuaded from planned acts of violence or convinced of the need for treatment. Also certain persons will report offenders only anonymously – an indispensable prerequisite for criminal prosecution.

Unfortunately, the greatest consensus currently seems to exist on mandating indiscriminate IP data retention throughout Europe, which the judges in Luxembourg recently green-lighted under massive pressure. Under no circumstances should all internet users be placed under general suspicion and online anonymity be abolished! A general and indiscriminate retention of our identity on the Internet allows for creating comprehensive personality and movement profiles of practically every citizen. Incidentally, there is no evidence that IP data retention significantly increases the crime clearance rate. In the absence of data retention Germany today has a higher cybercrime clearance rate than with IP data retention in place in 2009.“