News that the US government monitors vast amounts of private communications data has divided opinion at home and caused outrage in Europe. But what lengths do other countries go to in order to keep tabs on their citizens?
It has been a requirement since 2009 for communication service providers to hold information about their customers’ use of communications for at least a year. (CSPs are a broad group that can include telephone companies, Skype and search engines).
The government proposed further legislation that would require CSPs to collect additional information generated by third-party CSPs based outside the UK in order to access services like Gmail. The communications data bill was rejected by the Liberal Democrats, who were concerned that it would infringe civil liberties.
However, a recent terror attack in Woolwich, London, in which an army fusilier was killed in an apparent attack by Islamist extremists, prompted calls for the coalition government to resurrect its proposals.
The government argues that it is just the metadata on communication – information about a call or an email, rather than the content of it – that is being stored. However, critics have hit out at the so-called Snoopers Charter and the stockpiling of information on people who haven’t been suspected of a crime. Liberty, a civil liberties campaign group, described it as “mass, blanket surveillance of the population outsourced to the private sector.” Amie Tsang, London
The Chinese Communist party has a long tradition of spying on its subjects. The party has long maintained neighbourhood committees, or lane committees, grassroots cells in charge of informing on the people in one neighbourhood. But since Beijing allowed the country to connect to the internet in 1994, and more recently with the rise of social media, surveillance has moved online.
The authorities require telecom operators as well as the companies operating internet services such as blogging platforms or Twitter-like microblogs to monitor the content their users spread and exchange.
The regulations are even stricter when it comes to things Beijing defines as state secrets. Under the law, internet companies and telecom operators must report users to the security authorities if they suspect them of leaking state secrets. The companies must keep a record of the suspicious internet activity and stop the user from continuing it.
Yahoo came under fire several years ago after Shi Tao, a Chinese journalist, was sentenced to ten years in prison in 2005 for ‘leaking state secrets’ after he publicised censorship instructions for the anniversary of the 1989 crackdown on the Tiananmen student protests. The Chinese government found him with the help of information from Yahoo.
To make it easier for the government to trace the origin of information deemed dangerous, subversive or illegal, Beijing has long considered establishing real-name registration for internet users. Although this is considered an almost impossible task, some partial measures have been put in place: Early last year, Beijing started requiring Sina, the company operating Sina Weibo, China’s leading Twitter equivalent, to conduct real-name registration for new users. In December, the National People’s Congress, the country’s rubber-stamp legislature, passed a decision demanding internet companies check the real identity of their users.
Providers of information security products and services say investment by government departments from police stations to central government ministries in tools aimed at monitoring internet content such as data mining software is soaring.
As the party’s concern over growing levels of unrest and an increasingly demanding and critical middle class is rising, security organs have cranked up their electronic surveillance activities. Rights activists say that WeChat, the popular messaging application run by Tencent, China’s largest internet company by revenues, has become a key tool for state security officials to monitor the communication and movements of dissidents. Kathrin Hille, Beijing
Wiretapping has frequently been an object of controversy among Italy’s main parties, clashing both on the use of wiretapping as well as the extent to which content can be published. Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right PDL party has pushed, over the years, for limiting the use of tapping and modifying existing legislation. International organisations have repeatedly condemned these restrictions, perceived as hindering investigations linked to organised crime and investigative journalism.
According to recent statistics by Eurispes, a research institute, 139,000 Italian citizens were tapped in 2010, with 181 million “spied” conversations costing the State €284 million.
In March, Mr Berlusconi was given a one-year jail sentence over the publication of a transcript regarding two Italian banks on Il Giornale, a daily owned by the Berlusconi family. The publication broke secrecy rules, and Mr Berlusconi was accused of obtaining the transcript from the wiretap company used by magistrates.
Wiretapping has been used with “mafiosi”, civil servants, showgirls, as well as businessmen, including entrepreneurs involved in construction scandals unveiled with the fatal 2009 Abruzzo earthquake, and managers of Finmeccanica, the state-controlled defence company.
Antonello Soro, head of Italy’s privacy watchdog, announced that new rules would be proposed to “increase the protection of data collected and avoid illegal publications of it” on Monday, stressing that tapping should be perceived as “a fundamental investigative resource that cannot be substituted, hence must be used with great caution”. Giulia Segreti, Rome
Little more than two decades following the collapse of the east German communist regime and its huge spying apparatus, snooping on communications remains a hugely sensitive topic in Germany.
German police can go to court to obtain a warrant to monitor the communications of criminal suspects and the security services are thought to monitor emails for suspicious words.
Still, transparency and respect for privacy and data protections are generally greater than in the US.
For example, there was public outrage when Deutsche Telekom in 2008 admitted monitoring the phone records of employees to discover who was leaking information to journalists.
The Federal Office of Justice publishes statistics each year on the number of German citizens subject to communications monitoring
The Pirate Party, which campaigns for internet freedom, has polled strongly in recent regional elections and gained seats in several state parliaments.
Still, the German parliament last month passed a law making it easier for police and security services to identify internet users and to obtain pin codes and passwords. Chris Bryant, Frankfurt
Canada has a government metadata surveillance programme similar to Prism, which was renewed by the current defence minister in 2011, according to the Globe and Mail. The programme had been stopped temporarily in 2008 after a federal watchdog agency raised concerns about it. Amie Tsang, London
The opposition suspects that the government snoops with the help of Cuba’s G2 intelligence agents. Hugo Chavez’s favourite journalist, Mario Silva, occasionally plays recordings of opposition politicians having compromising telephone conversations. A recording of him talking to a Cuban agent was recently leaked by the opposition. Benedict Mander, Caracas