Europeans love warrantless wiretaps.

Lessons for the U.S. from abroad.
Feb. 14 2006 6:39 AM

Wiretapping, European-Style

Think Bush's warrantless NSA surveillance is bad? Wait till you hear what the British government does.

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Earlier this month, in one of the more bizarre cases of Euro-tapping, Greek officials acknowledged that 100 cell-phone lines were tapped during the 2004 Athens Olympic Games. Oddly, all those targeted were involved with national security, including Prime Minster Kostas Karamanlis. Vodafone, the mobile phone company, learned of the wiretapping when customers complained they were not receiving their messages and calls. An investigation revealed that someone had installed spy software. It's not clear who was tapping the phones or why. 

European police aren't listening only to conversations; now they have access to other details of phone use. In December, the European parliament approved new rules requiring telecommunications companies to retain customers' telephone and Internet records for up to two years. The directive passed in record time, despite objections from phone companies and Internet providers (all that record-keeping is expensive), as well as privacy advocates. This means that European authorities can tell not only what was said in a phone call, but who was on the other end and where they were located. The United States lobbied hard for this new EU policy, even though telecommunications companies in this country are under no such record-keeping obligation.

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When it comes to consumer information, Europeans guard their privacy much more fiercely than Americans do. European companies can't legally share most consumer information, and cases of identity theft are much less common.       

So, why are Europeans so nonchalant when it comes to government eavesdropping? One reason is that sometimes it works. When Osman Hussain, a suspect in the botched July 21 London bombing, fled Britain, police traced his journey—across the United Kingdom to  France and then Italy, where he was arrested—by tapping his cell phone.

There is a cultural explanation, too. Europeans tend to trust their private information with governments, not corporations. So, while they wouldn't dream of divulging their credit card number to a telemarketer they will gladly hand it over to a government clerk. The state is seen as more benevolent than those greedy, Americanized corporations.

And Europeans have no equivalent to the American Constitution, which enshrines the right of individuals to be free from government coercion. Privacy International's Hosein draws on this constitutional tradition when he explains why Europeans don't bristle at wiretapping that would appall Americans. In Europe, he notes, there are plenty of pressure groups fighting for the rights of consumers, but very few lobbying on behalf of citizens. There is no European equivalent of the ACLU, pushing back against government intrusions. So, next time you're in Europe, feel free to hand out your credit card number willy-nilly. Just be careful what you say on the phone.

Correction, Feb. 14, 2006: The piece originally misspelled Francois Mitterrand's last name. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Eric Weiner is author of the forthcoming book The Geography of Bliss, to be published in 2008.