With rare efficiency, the Interior Ministry is pushing its amendments to the Electronic Communications Act (ECA), referred to in local media as online eavesdropping, towards approval by Parliament.
It took only a 40-minute session behind closed doors of the parliamentary committee on internal security and public order on December 10 to approve the proposed amendments. It was expected that the proposal would be tabled in Parliament by early January 2010 at the latest, where it is expected to get first-reading approval.
The faster the Interior Ministry tries to get the amendments through, the louder privacy advocates protest, threatening to take the matter to the Constitutional Court, should Parliament accept the current proposals.
In the run-up to the amendments entering Parliament, civil protest has taken on new dimensions, at least for Bulgaria.
An official protest letter was publicly drafted and discussed online and posted to the Facebook group Не искаме МВР да ни следи безконтролно в Интернет! (We do not want the Interior Ministry to eavesdrop on us online without control), along with a list of mobile phone numbers of Members of Parliament and an appeal to users to call or SMS their MPs to vote against the amendments.
"We hope that [former foreign minister Ivailo] Kalfin, who is now on the board of the European Internet Foundation, will take a public stand in the coming days," Bulgarian Internet Society head Veni Markovski said. "Kalfin was against the amendments that were proposed in April," Markovski said.Whether from non-governmental organisations, privacy advocates or political parties, objections against the current proposals focus on four issues.
"Our first objection is against the interface, which would give the police permanent, real-time, direct access to communication data, with no guarantees of judicial oversight," Alexandar Kashumov, head of the legal team at the Access to Information Programme, says.
In an interview with Bulgarian National Television on December 15, Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov said, "When there is a crime, police have to react as quickly as possible. Don’t you think that police should have this access so that police officers can perform a check in real time? The next day police will be asked why it did not solve this or that crime".
According to Kashumov, however, under the proposed amendments, the interface was intended for detection of crime, not investigation, raising additional questions about privacy and access.
"There is no other European Union member state that provides such access to its police force, it violates article 8 of the European Convention for Human Rights, as well as the Bulgarian constitution," he said.
"Why should anyone believe that the police will only watch what the court has allowed, when this interface gives them access to everything?" Markovski said in an interview with bTV on December 12.
Ivan Ivanov, deputy leader of the Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria (DSB), part of the Blue Coalition that has supported the current Government, shares this concern.
"What we want is for this text to be dropped from the current amendment and be replaced by a text that would set a clear deadline by which court decisions and communication data have to be provided," Ivanov said.
"Our second objection is against the lowering of the bar for crimes for which these means can be used from five to two years. According to the Bulgarian constitution, privacy of communication can only be violated for serious crimes, which carry a sentence of a minimum of five years. You cannot just introduce a law that changes the constitution," Kashumov said.
The DSB proposal was for this text to be changed to include only serious crimes which carry a sentence of at least five years plus crimes included in European arrest regulations, so as to include all forms of organised crime and corruption, Ivanov said.
"Thirdly, under the current proposal, citizens have no right to request information about whether or not their communication data has been subject to investigation," Kashumov said. The DSB would support the introduction of such a right, Ivanov said in an interview with The Sofia Echo.
The fourth objection that privacy advocates, non-governmental organisations and the DSB share is that the current proposal does not provide for a period after which communication data that has been accessed in the course of an investigation has to be destroyed, effectively allowing for this data to be stored indefinitely.
"We propose to limit this period to three years, with a possible exception for certain cases that are still in the courts or under investigation," Ivanov said.
Tsvetanov and various spokespeople for the ministry have maintained the system has sufficient safeguards against abuse.
"It is not that hard to abuse this system," Markovski said in an interview with The Sofia Echo.
"The Interior Ministry likes to give examples using child pornography, so let me give a different example. Suppose you are HIV-positive and would like to find out more about the disease. By monitoring your communication data, a police officer could find out that you are looking for specific information and contacts, conclude that you are HIV-positive and decide to blackmail you with this. The same thing if you are gay. With the current public attitude towards these groups in Bulgaria, this is not that far-fetched."
Blagorodna Makeva of the Criminal Police chief directorate at the Interior Ministry said in an interview with bTV: "police officers enter the system using personal accounts and passwords, they have to enter case numbers referring to concrete court decisions to access specific data. If this is missing, it will be clear immediately that someone has abused the system".
That system too, according to Markovski, is easy to fool. "Suppose you have a company and you want to eavesdrop on your competitor. You pay a corrupt policeman to file a formal investigation over an alleged threat and you say you have reason to believe that it comes from within the computer network of your competitor. Most companies have an internal network, with one or two public IP addresses to connect to the internet. The police will monitor these public IP addresses, and effectively follow all communication of this company."
"If they are so certain that there will be no abuse, let them increase the punishment for abuse to something significant," Markovski said.
According to Ivanov, punishment for abuse under the current proposal was not sufficient, saying "it should be raised five to 10 times".