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Cyprus

House to vote on wiretap bill

T

By Staff Reporter

A government bill allowing the court-ordered lifting of communications privacy, so that prosecutors can access and submit written communication data as evidence in court, will be tabled to the plenum for a vote next week.

Such data may include emails, SMS texts, and online chats.

Speaking after a session of the House legal affairs committee on Wednesday, Justice minister Ionas Nicolaou said that over the coming week he will be consulting with the Attorney-general on whether additional safeguards can be inserted to prevent the law’s abuse or misuse.

Main opposition AKEL opposes the bill as it stands, arguing that it effectively spells the end of privacy.

The bill allows for snooping on communications, following a court order, for cases relating to drug trafficking, human trafficking, corruption, homeland security, and monetary stability.

The government argues it will boost law enforcement’s evidence-gathering arsenal, and has cited ongoing investigations into the economic meltdown of 2013 as a primary driver.

Surveillance will be permitted for a specified period of time. For instance, if during the course of such eavesdropping investigators should learn that the suspect has committed theft, his private data will be inadmissible in court as theft is not listed in article 17 of the Constitution.

But AKEL wants additional safeguards, such as that requests for lifting communications privacy should be signed off personally by the Attorney-general, not by state attorneys.

In addition, the name of the officer executing the court order must be logged, so the officer may be criminally liable should he or she break the law.

AKEL also proposes that a panel be set up to monitor these practices, comprised of the Attorney-general, the Data Protection Commissioner and the Ombudsman.

“If the administration wants to act arbitrarily, it will do so anyway, so at the very least the law should afford certain protection,” AKEL MP Aristos Damianou said.

In parliament, he and the justice minister engaged in a heated exchange. Nicolaou took a swipe at AKEL, saying that some people evidently would not like to see certain crimes solved.

Hitting back, Damianou described the law as draconian.

Nicolaou countered that the Constitution of Cyprus affords considerable protection to communications privacy. Whereas in certain other countries, he said, surveillance is authorised without a court order.

Citing national security, the United States, Britain and more recently France have passed sweeping laws authorising wiretapping without a court warrant.

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