Weekly review: safety vs. liberties

Weekly review: safety vs. liberties

Bucharest, January 10, 2015/ Independent Balkan News Agency

By Daniel Stroe

With all eyes set on the three day jihadist siege France was under, Romanian officials again raised the thorny issue of security surveillance, half a year after a decision of a Constitutional Court buried what the media nicknamed “Big Brother” laws designed, say the authorities, to streamline the fight against terrorism and large scale crime.

The debate came to a halt last summer when the Constitutional Court rejected as unconstitutional a package of laws meant to help secret services and law enforcement agencies track down risks more accurately. The laws stipulated all the mobile operators and Internet providers shall retain for six months data of users which shall be given to state security institutions upon request. At the same time, the law obliged all the buyers of pre-paid SIMs to present an ID card, which is not the case at the moment. The civil society, at least part of it, hailed the victory against what it called intrusive laws which would have seriously encroached upon basic liberties.

Fighting the bills, several organizations warned, in a public letter to the Ombudsman, the law on PrePay cards will be ineffective since, they argued, in the absence of a pan-European regulation concerning these pre-paid SIMs, criminals could as well buy these cards from other European countries and then use them in Romania to commit crimes.

But with Europe more exposed to security risks, amid an exodus of at least 3.000 Europeans joining the Islamic State in Syria, the debate is flaring up again. In Romania, security officials are warning new risks are arising. Speaking at an emergency meeting yesterday, George Maior, the head of Romania’s home intelligence service SRI, warned the terror attacks in France are consistent with a new dimension of the terrorist threats which have the potential to seriously endanger the national security and public order and, at the same time, the credibility and the authority of the security institutions. To ensure a security climate, the state needs effective operational mechanisms, officials who attended yesterday’s inter-ministerial meeting also pointed out.

Romania’s prosecutor-general was the first to launch the debate. “For an effective prevention of the terrorist acts we need suitable instruments and the laws concerning pre-paid mobile cards and the data retention could represent such suitable instruments, if we had them. We must pass effective laws that can constitute very good instruments to prevent acts of terrorism, you mentioned Paris… Look at what trying to combat looks like! What’s going on is terrible”, Tiberiu Nitu told the media on Thursday.

Unlike the situation last summer, when the civil society seemed to have been coagulated around the common cause of fighting the Big Brother laws, this week several NGOs rallied behind the state security institutions and called on strict and fast measures to combat terrorism, following the dramatic situation in France. In a joint statement, the seven organizations drew the attention towards a higher frequency of terrorist attacks across Europe which they say “represents serious encroachment upon fundamental rights and liberties of citizens” and “in this context, there is a strong need for a calm, rational and national solidarity approach of the objectives that concern protecting Romanian citizens’ lives”.

They go on to specifically identify the measures needed to be taken under the current circumstances, such as the “creation of the necessary legal framework which shall take into account the technological progress and the manner this is used by individuals or groups involved in planning and launching terror attacks, with a stress placed on urgently passing the bill on identifying the PrePay card users”.

Yesterday, the officials with prerogatives in national security issues reaffirmed the need to re-submit the bills on data retention and PrePay cards users which will probably have to be differently drafted to avoid a new rejection from Romania’s top court. Romania, a NATO member state actively involved in the mission in Afghanistan, has over the past years expelled dozens of people suspected of terrorism. With the images of the attacks in France still fresh in people’s memory, the opposition to the renewed discussion on the necessity to toughen the law is at this point weak which could play into the hands of the state security institutions. Many say it is just a matter of time before the Big Brother laws are passed, regardless of the form.