Constitutional Court invalidates telecommunications data retention law

The Czech Constitutional Court has invalidated a law that forces operators to retain data on telephone calls and Internet traffic on the grounds that it violates people’s right to privacy. In a highly anticipated ruling on Thursday, the court said that the provision ordering data on all calls, faxes, text messages and e-mail exchanges to be retained for six months was unconstitutional since it enabled a "massive" invasion into citizens' rights and was not in line with the rule of law.

Few people are aware of just how much information about them the telecommunications data retention law provides – who they associate with, where they go, where they spend their weekends, what websites they visit and even what time they get up in the morning. Under the present legislation which requires telephone operators to retain all information for a period of six months the police can acquire this information within minutes of requesting it.

Although the law stems from a European Union directive and to some degree data retention is used in most countries of the European Union as a means of fighting terrorism and organized crime, its critics are becoming increasingly vocal, arguing that the state is collecting and retaining far more information about its citizens than the situation merits. Following the example of Germany, where the law was overturned last year, fifty-one Czech deputies filed a complaint about it with the Constitutional Court –and achieved their goal. The court unanimously ruled the law unconstitutional.

Marek Benda, a Civic Democrat MP who fought to have the law overturned says it was poorly tailored in the first place.

“The main problem is that a huge amount of information is being retained without good reason – and basically anyone can get to it. That is simply not right. The state should be able to collect as much information as it wants about criminals but not about all its citizens on the argument that each one of them is a potential criminal.”

In line with the court ruling, existing data bases should be scrapped within two weeks. While the law’s critics are cheering, the Interior Ministry is disappointed with the decision, saying it will seriously hamper its work –from tracking down criminals to finding missing persons. In cooperation with the Ministry of Justice and the Industry Ministry it wants to draft a new law on telecommunication data retention. A similar revision of the law in the UK led to an arrangement whereby telephone operators and internet service providers retain some data under an arrangement with the Home Office.