As part of an ongoing attempt to help law enforcement obtain data across international borders, the Council of Europe’s Cybercrime Convention— finalized in the weeks following 9/11, and ratified by the United States and over 50 countries around the world—is back on the global lawmaking agenda. This time, the Council’s Cybercrime Convention Committee (T-CY) has initiated a process to draft a second additional protocol to the Convention—a new text which could allow direct foreign law enforcement access to data stored in other countries’ territories. EFF has joined EDRi and a number of other organizations in a letter to the Council of Europe, highlighting some anticipated concerns with the upcoming process and seeking to ensure civil society concerns are considered in the new protocol. This new protocol needs to preserve the Council of Europe’s stated aim to uphold human rights, and not undermine privacy, and the integrity of our communication networks.
How the Long Arm of Law Reaches into Foreign Servers
Thanks to the internet, individuals and their data increasingly reside in different jurisdictions: your email might be stored on a Google server in the United States, while your shared Word documents might be stored by Microsoft in Ireland. Law enforcement agencies across the world have sought to gain access to this data, wherever it is held. That means police in one country frequently seek to extract personal, private data from servers in another.
Currently, the primary international mechanism for facilitating governmental cross border data access is the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT) process, a series of treaties between two or more states that create a formal basis for cooperation between designated authorities of signatories. These treaties typically include some safeguards for privacy and due process, most often the safeguards of the country that hosts the data.
The MLAT regime includes steps to protect privacy and due process, but frustrated agencies have increasingly sought to bypass it, by either cross-border hacking, or leaning on large service providers in foreign jurisdictions to hand over data voluntarily.
The legalities of cross-border hacking remain very murky, and its operation is the very opposite of transparent and proportionate. Meanwhile, voluntary cooperation between service providers and law enforcement occurs outside the MLAT process and without any clear accountability framework. The primary window of insight into its scope and operation is the annual Transparency Reports voluntarily issued by some companies such as Google and Twitter.
Hacking often blatantly ignores the laws and rights of a foreign state, but voluntary data handovers can be used to bypass domestic legal protections too. In Canada, for example, the right to privacy includes rigorous safeguards for online anonymity: private Internet companies are not permitted to identify customers without prior judicial authorization. By identifying often sensitive anonymous online activity directly through the voluntary cooperation of a foreign company not bound by Canadian privacy law, law enforcement agents can effectively bypass this domestic privacy standard.
Faster, but not Better: Bypassing MLAT
The MLAT regime has been criticized as slow and inefficient. Law enforcement officers have claimed that have to wait anywhere between 6-10 months—the reported average time frame for receiving data through an MLAT request—for data necessary to their local investigation. Much of this delay, however, is attributable to a lack of adequate resources, streamlining and prioritization for the huge increase in MLAT requests for data held the United States, plus the absence of adequate training for law enforcement officers seeking to rely on another state’s legal search and seizure powers.
Instead of just working to make the MLAT process more effective, the T-CY committee is seeking to create a parallel mechanism for cross-border cooperation. While the process is still in its earliest stages, many are concerned that the resulting proposals will replicate many of the problems in the existing regime, while adding new ones.
What the New Protocol Might Contain
The Terms of Reference for the drafting of this new second protocol reveal some areas that may be included in the final proposal.
Simplified mechanisms for cross border access
T-CY has flagged a number of new mechanisms it believes will streamline cross-border data access. The terms of reference mention a simplified regime’ for legal assistance with respect to subscriber data. Such a regime could be highly controversial if it compelled companies to identify anonymous online activity without prior judicial authorization. The terms of reference also envision the creation of “international production orders.”. Presumably these would be orders issued by one court under its own standards, but that must be respected by Internet companies in other jurisdictions. Such mechanisms could be problematic where they do not respect the privacy and due process rights of both jurisdictions.
The terms of reference also call for „provisions allowing for direct cooperation with service providers in other jurisdictions with regard to requests for [i] subscriber information, [ii] preservation requests, and [iii] emergency requests.“ These mechanisms would be permissive, clearing the way for companies in one state to voluntarily cooperate with certain types of requests issued by another, and even in the absence of any form of judicial authorization.
Each of the proposed direct cooperation mechanisms could be problematic. Preservation requests are not controversial per se. Companies often have standard retention periods for different types of data sets. Preservation orders are intended to extend these so that law enforcement have sufficient time to obtain proper legal authorization to access the preserved data. However, preservation should not be undertaken frivolously. It can carry an accompanying stigma, and exposes affected individuals’ data to greater risk if a security breach occurs during the preservation period. This is why some jurisdictions require reasonable suspicion and court orders as requirements for preservation orders.
Direct voluntary cooperation on emergency matters is challenging as well. While in such instances, there is little time to engage the judicial apparatus and most states recognize direct access to private customer data in emergency situations, such access can still be subject to controversial overreach. This potential for overreach–and even abuse–becomes far higher where there is a disconnect between standards in requesting and responding jurisdictions.
Direct cooperation in identifying customers can be equally controversial. Anonymity is critical to privacy in digital contexts. Some data protection laws (such as Canada’s federal privacy law) prevent Internet companies from voluntarily providing subscriber data to law enforcement voluntarily.
The terms of reference also envisions the adoption of “safeguards“. The scope and nature of these will be critical. Indeed, one of the strongest criticisms against the original Cybercrime Convention has been its lack of specific protections and safeguards for privacy and other human rights. The EDRi Letter calls for adherence to the Council of Europe’s data protection regime, Convention 108, as a minimum prerequisite to participation in the envisioned regime for cross-border access, which would provide some basis for shared privacy protection. The letter also calls for detailed statistical reporting and other safeguards.
On 18 September, the T-CY Bureau will meet with European Digital Rights Group (EDRI) to discuss the protocol. The first meeting of the Drafting Group will be held on 19 and 20 September. The draft Protocol will be prepared and finalized by the T-CY, in closed session.
Law enforcement agencies are granted extraordinary powers to invade privacy in order to investigate crime. This proposed second protocol to the Cybercrime Convention must ensure that the highest privacy standards and due process protections adopted by signatory states remain intact.
We believe that the Council of Europe T-CY Committee — Netherlands, Romania, Canada, Dominica Republic, Estonia, Mauritius, Norway, Portugal, Sri Lanka, Switzerland, and Ukraine — should concentrate first on fixes to the existing MLAT process, and they should ensure that this new initiative does not become an exercise in harmonization to the lowest denominator of international privacy protection. We’ll be keeping track of what happens next.