Human rights activists and Internet users criticize recent controversial initiatives by the Macedonian Government to increase its legal powers of surveillance. Backed by a comfortable majority in the Parliament, the authorities show little interest in transparent and accountable public debate on this issue.
Macedonian Law on Personal Data Protection provides high levels of protection, and is implemented by an independent regulative body, the Directorate for Personal Data Protection. However, in the last few years, the executive branch of the Government instigated changes in various other laws to create legal loopholes for the authorities to spy on the citizens. As part of this trend, the Parliament will soon vote on the amendments of the Law on Electronic Communications, first proposed on May 11.
The first version of the amendments included obligations for ISPs to provide means for the authorities to directly eavesdrop on the communications by their customers at any time, resulting in an outcry by the opposition and requests for explanation by the European Union, which monitors if the laws made in the EU candidate states are up to its standards.
Metamorphosis Foundation voiced its position “that a substantial part of the amendments… are actually threatening privacy, i.e. the constitutionally guaranteed right to protection of personal data of citizens of the Republic of Macedonia and all other persons on its territory.” Article 17 of the Constitution of the Republic of Macedonia (available on the website of the Constitutional Court) clearly states that:
The freedom and confidentiality of correspondence and other forms of communication is guaranteed.
Only a court decision may authorize non-application of the principle of the inviolability of the confidentiality of correspondence and other forms of communication, in cases where it is indispensable to a criminal investigation or required in the interests of the defense of the Republic.
The amendments were revised and returned to the Parliament for adoption, but the contents of the revised version have not been revealed to the public yet. In an attempt to incite the authorities to become more transparent and accountable, Metamorphosis invited them to a public round table, scheduled for June 4. In the meantime, the authors in both the traditional and the new media have started to dig deeper into the issue.
IT.com.mk published an article by Viktor Arsovski, entitled “The Big Brother will eavesdrop at will?” [MKD]. The author notes that the data retention term required by the new law is 24 months–the maximum allowed by the European Directives–even though in practice most EU countries choose far shorter terms. In Germany, for instance, it's 6 months. Arsovski continued:
Another important change is amending Article 112 with the paragraph:
“Operators of public communications networks and providers of public communication services are obliged to enable continuous and direct access for the authorized monitoring body to their electronic communications networks and conditions to independently gather the traffic data…”
What does independent gathering of traffic data mean? Will the authorities be able to eavesdrop without a court order and without even notifying the operator? Or after they receive a permit and start to eavesdrop legally, then it would be up to them to decide whether to continue or not?
Article 115 is also changed in an interesting way: the term “eavesdropping” (surveillance) has been replaced with a new name: “Equipment and interface for communications monitoring.”
IT.com.mk also maintains the most popular ICT-related forum in Macedonia, and its users started a lively discussion [MKD] about this issue. User neW1 pointed to a 2007 blog post [MKD] by Damjan Georgievski that provided an explanation of the term ‘lawful intercept’.
Some disputants expressed doubt as to whether the authorities have the intention or the capacity to eavesdrop on 2 million people, that the ISPs will not allow the changes to pass due to high equipment costs they would need to bear, and that anyway, the surveillance would focus on the “big fish,” while “mere mortals” need not worry.
It is unbelievable how many people are brainwashed to the degree that they can throw away their liberty and rights in cold blood because “it is practiced everywhere and it is normal…”
He also added [MKD]:
Someone mentioned that the providers would not agree to this. I have been informed that they already installed the necessary equipment, it is already done.
Vordan, another experienced Internet user, tried to express his bitterness by summing up [MKD] “a few facts”:
- Every state by definition needs to have an opportunity to eavesdrop on the electronic communications, as a basic tool against crime and terrorism (we have them both).
- The difference between “good” and “bad” surveillance is how it is used and controlled. A good surveillance law would aid the control, but here we speak about the control, not about the [contents of the] law.
- In the past, the laws in this area have been broken in Macedonia, and most probably the breaking will continue in the future. Even though I completely support the Metamorphosis declaration, I think that even if we make the best law on the planet, it won't do us much good – knowing who needs to control it (the politicians). In this regard, we are doomed in advance.
- In Macedonia (at least) two leading political parties (SDSM and VMRO) possess complete surveillance equipment. This equipment is of the highest quality and is used regularly to eavesdrop on anyone (they consider interesting).
- Apart from this, there are allegations that the authorities use a local computer company to regularly copy hard disks with the electronic communication (e-mail, VOIP, IM) from at least two local ISPs, which are then decoded and transcribed.
- Even though the concern and efforts to prevent surveillance by certain disputants is entertaining and charming, I tell them not to worry – if “the agencies” think they should, they are already eavesdropping on them. It is no use even if they use space-age encryption. If the electronics fail, there's always the time-tested system of spying on people through “word of mouth.”
So relax, there's not much you can do. Currently the opposition fights tooth and nail against this law, but tomorrow when (and if) they get the power, they will be totally happy to use its “benefits.”
You can't win. You can't even make it even.
Vordan also added [MKD] that his ironic comment came from the feeling of helplessness, but that he agreed with Arangel that “everybody needs to invest the maximum effort to protect the privacy of their communications.”
(Thumbnail source: Aubonheurduweb.com, published under Creative Commons-BY-NC-SA license.)