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Access to e-evidence: Inevitable sacrifice of our right to privacy?

What do you do when human rights “get in the way” of tackling crime and terrorism? You smash those pillars of your democratic values - the same ones you are supposedly protecting. Give up your right to privacy, it is a fair price to pay for the guarantee of your security! This is the mantra that, during the past decades, we have heard populist politicians repeat over and over again – never mind that gambling with our rights actually helps very little in that fight. One of the bargaining chips in the debate on privacy versus security is access to e-evidence. E-evidence refers to digital or electronic evidence, such as contents of social media, emails, messaging services or data held in the “cloud”. Access to these data is often required in criminal investigations. Since the geographical borders are often blurred in the digital environment, investigations require cross-border cooperation between public authorities and private sector. Thorough police investigations are indeed of utmost importance. However, the access to people's personal data must be proportionate and necessary for the aim of the investigation and provided for by law. In a similar way that the police cannot enter your home without a court warrant, they are not supposed to look into your private communications without permission, right? Not really. The EU is working towards easing the access to e-evidence for law enforcement authorities. The plan of the European Commission is to propose new rules on sharing evidence and the possibility for the authorities to request e-evidence directly from technology companies. One of the proposed options is that police would be able to access data directly from the cloud-based services. This means that Facebook, Google, Microsoft, providers of messaging services, and other companies which collect and store data of millions of EU citizens, would be obliged to provide this data to the authorities, even when stored in the cloud in another EU Member State. The types of data that might fall within the scope of the law range from metadata (such as location, time, sender and recipient of the message and other non-content data) to the content of our personal communications. But for sure there must be safeguards to protect people's right to privacy, right? Not necessarily, especially when pushing for “voluntary” cooperation between companies and law enforcement. This kind of arrangements often lack in accountability and predictability. This is why any new measures on e-evidence must comply with international human rights and data protection standards. Member States must continue to be able to regulate access to data in their jurisdiction and on their citizens and residents, in particular by foreign law enforcement and national security agencies. Individuals must also be able to seek protection and redress in their own country. Access to e-evidence is also being discussed beyond EU borders. The Council of Europe (CoE) is preparing to adopt a new protocol to the so-called Budapest Convention – the Convention on Cybercrime of the Council of Europe. The Convention covers not only CoE Member States, but all 53 countries that have ratified it. This means not all of them are bound by data protection or human rights conventions. EDRi is following this process attentively and has submitted input on several occasions. The initiative from the European Commission is establishing the framework for a new legislative proposal, which is scheduled to be presented in the beginning of 2018. On 8 June 2017, the Commission presented the options for practical and legislative measures to the EU ministers. EDRi is participating in expert discussions on the suggested way forward. It is crucial that safeguards to ensure data protection and the rule of law are applied to the new legislation. Otherwise, it will be imposed at the cost of the human rights of citizens.

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