Italian GSM provider warns: too many wiretaps
The Italian mobile operator TIM, one of the largest mobile phone companies in Italy has issued a unique warning that the number of wiretaps has reached the limit. In a fax sent to all Italian public prosecutors they say that they have already over-stretched their capacity from 5.000 to 7.000 simultaneously intercepted mobile phones. New requests now have to be processed on a ‘first come first serve’ basis, they write.
Even more unique in the current secretive environment of law enforcement, the Italian Minister of Justice Roberto Castelli (right-wing Lega Nord) has provided the newspaper Repubblica with statistics about the number of wiretaps and costs. The number of wiretaps has doubled every two years, he said, from 32.000 intercepts in 2001, to 45.000 in 2002, to 77.000 in 2003. He estimates the number of wiretaps in 2004 to be 100.000, costing the Justice department aprox 300.00 million euro in cost reimbursements. In 2003 the department of Justice spent 225 million euro on the intercepts, in 2002 230 million and in 2001 165 million.
Castelli admitted the number of police intercepts in Italy was very high. Currently Italy has aprox 58 million inhabitants. With 100.000 intercepts in 2004, Italy orders 172 judicial intercepts per 100.000 inhabitants. There is no information about wiretaps ordered by secret services in any country.
Castelli referred to the report of the German Max Planck Institute which already concluded Italy was the wiretapping champion of the (western) world with 76 intercepts per 100.000 inhabitants (44.000 wiretaps in 1996). The number two on the European wiretapping list in 1996, the Netherlands, refuses to provide any recent statistics. According to unofficial estimates the Netherlands intercepted 12.000 phones (fixed and mobile) in 2004. If those numbers are correct, the Netherlands have 75 intercepts per 100.000 inhabitants. In the United States, the most recent public statistics date from 2002. They mention 1.273 court ordered intercepts on a population of aprox 293 million, totalling 0,43 intercepts per 100.000 inhabitants. The UK Communication Commissioner mentions a total of 1.983 warrants for intercepts in 2003 on a population of 59,5 million, totalling 3,3 intercepts per 100.000 inhabitants.
One possible explanation for the explosion of the number of wiretaps in Italy is their short duration. An order is valid for 15 days and can only be extended with a new motivation from a magistrate. Only for investigations into organised crime an intercept can last 40 days. In many other countries, intercepts have a duration of 1 to 3 months.
Vodafone and Wind, two other major mobile phone companies, are also reaching their maximum wiretapping capacity, reports Repubblica. While Castelli used the occasion to warn against overuse of wiretapping in investigations, the Italian magistracy doesn’t seem to agree. Edmondo Bruto Liberati, President the National Association of Magistrates (association of both judges and public prosecutors) stressed that wiretapping is much cheaper than individual covert surveillance. He complained about the vast under-financing the judicial apparatus is currently suffering from.
This public debate between the Minister and the magistracy points at a more fundamental division in Italian politics. By stressing the immense costs of wiretapping the Minister of Justice adds weight to his attempt to shift the costs to the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Generally the Minister pictures an image of a foolish magistracy that abundantly spends public money. This comes as no surprise to many Italians, given the tense relationship between Berlusconi and the magistracy.
MP Giovanni Russo Spena (left wing opposition, Rifondazione Comunista) has demanded an explanation from the government about the massive use of wiretapping in investigations and wishes to be informed how citizens are protected against this potential and actual invasion of their privacy rights.
Troppe intercettazioni / La Tim: ‘Esaurite le linee’ (19.02.2005)
Troppi cellulari intercettati. La Tim: ‘Esaurite le linee'(20.02.2005)
Rechtswirklichkeit und Effizienz der Überwachung der Telekommunikation
[..], Max Planck Institute for Foreign and International Criminal Law,
international statistics on page 104 (in German, June 2003)
Public statistics US legal intercepts (to 2002)
Public annual report UK legal intercepts (2003, published July 2004)
(Thanks to Andrea Glorioso, Italian consultant on digital policies)