'Big Brother' move rapped 

By GEOFFREY BEW

NEW regulation that would force telecommunication companies to keep records of everyone's phone calls, e-mails and the websites they visit in Bahrain, has been attacked by human rights activists and MPs.

It has been drafted by the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA), which wants the information to be stored for up to three years.

Both the National Security Agency and the BDF Directorate of Military Intelligence would have access to the data, but only upon receipt of a court order or permission from the Public Prosecution.

It would allow authorities to eavesdrop on the content of phone calls, e-mails and any other form of electronic communication.

In addition, information such as the phone numbers of the parties' involved, the date, time and duration of the call and their location at the beginning and end of the call would also be stored.

Similar data will also be logged from text messages, multi-media messages and enhanced messages.

Meanwhile, information retained from e-mails sent and received would include the authentication username, date, time of login and logout, the Internet Protocol (IP) address, date and time the mail was sent.

Telecommunication companies would have to provide access to the information within 24 hours of a request being made.

They would also be responsible for paying the costs of setting up such a system.

Companies would have two months to submit a plan for establishing a database to the TRA and another six months to put it into effect.

Firms would be able to keep an electronic copy of the data, but would have to ensure its safe storage and maintain the privacy and confidentiality of the information.

The TRA says the law has been proposed to help maintain national security, but has been criticised for allowing Bahrain's authorities to spy on its citizens.

President of the now-dissolved Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR) Nabeel Rajab claimed it would provide a legal mandate to invade people's privacy - especially political and human rights activists.

"Although infringing privacy of activists has always been practised by the Bahrain authorities, what is more dangerous this time is that they are legalising it under the pretext of national security," he said, as he urged the TRA to withdraw the draft law.

Parliament's foreign affairs, defence and national security committee chairman MP Shaikh Adel Al Maawada was also against the proposal.

However, his opposition could be futile since the regulation does not have to be approved by MPs.

"This is a breach of personal freedom and is unethical," he told the GDN. This will mean everyone being monitored - including me.

"It is like (the government is) entering your home without your permission to see what you are doing with your family. This is against Islam. Everyone has the right to personal freedom."

Tomorrow is the deadline for public comments on the draft law. People can submit their views directly to the TRA by e-mail or deliver their comments in person to the TRA's office, in the Diplomatic Area, by 4pm tomorrow.

The TRA will then review the feedback and publish a report on the public consultation process, before officials decide whether the draft should be amended.

Once that process is completed, the regulation will become law and officials said it could be implemented as early as next month.

However, Bahrain Human Rights Society (BHRS) general-secretary Dr Abdulla Al Deerazi claimed the law could breach the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which Bahrain has signed.

"The whole thing will breach privacy and interfere with personal freedom," he said.

"To apply such a law goes against transparency.

"This is not a 21st Century step. This is like going back to the dark ages, especially with the Information Technology revolution.

"It puts into mind that the state is moving towards security solutions, but they have proven unsuccessful before the reform projects and even now.

"If you do not trust your citizens how can you expect them to trust you?"

Dr Al Deerazi believed the government was trying to discourage activists, but predicted the plan was doomed to failure.

"The only explanation for such a law, the way it is, is to target activities in all fields of political and human rights," he said.

"It will not stop us. We will be more determined to continue our work."

However, TRA officials claimed there had been a "misunderstanding" about the purpose of the regulation and denied suggestions it breached the country's constitution.

"It (the draft regulation) sets out the requirements for telecommunications operators to retain all communication logs and to allow access to such information and actual call content when required by the authorities," said a TRA statement.

"The competent authorities will have to follow standard procedures as part the relevant laws to instigate access on the strength of a permit by the Public Prosecutor's office or by virtue of an order issued by the court."

Officials also claimed the proposed regulation was no different to other national security measures around the world.

"In line with international practice, this regulation addresses lawful access and data retention in the context of the constitution and the Telecommunications Law and strives to balance the individual right to privacy and national security requirements," added TRA general director Alan Horne.

The full text of the regulation is available in English and Arabic on the TRA's website at www.tra.org.bh.

People can e-mail their comments to the TRA on consult@tra.org.bh. geoff@gdn.com.bh


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