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Italians' privacy in danger, says watchdog

'New provision needed to prevent undue disclosure'

11 June, 18:18
Italians' privacy in danger, says watchdog (By Christopher Livesay) (ANSA) - Rome, June 11 - On the heels of revelations that the United States is surveilling citizens' phone calls and scouring foreigners' Internet records, Italy's privacy watchdog told the parliament Tuesday that its citizens' privacy was also at risk.

Commenting on his first annual report to parliament, Antonello Soro announced that a "general provision" on information gathering will be adopted in the weeks ahead, aiming "to indicate appropriate solutions to elevate the standard of data-protection treaties and to prevent undue disclosure". Earlier this month the US government confirmed leaks that the National Security Agency (NSA) is collecting the phone records of tens of millions of Americans and surveilling online communications to and from foreign targets with the aim of thwarting terrorist attacks. Soro rejected the model adopted in the US and called for tougher safeguards in the European Union. But he added that data surveillance is a "fundamental and irreplaceable investigative resource that must be managed with caution".

He added that information leaks must also be avoided.

"In addition to damaging investigations, they risk violating the dignity of the interested parties," he said, warning against resulting "transcription journalism" that ultimately produces low-quality information.

"In the age of non-stop online access, there is a myth that absolute transparency eliminates all opacity," he said. "Total transparency, instead, does not equal truth and protecting information does not always mean someone is hiding something unsavoury. "It's a fundamental requirement of politics just as it is in private lives".

He also warned against the "near monopolistic" power of Internet giants such as Google, Facebook and Amazon, "which can no longer be ignored". "Likewise, the differing laws with respect to European content-producers and service-providers are no longer acceptable," said Soro. He went on to blast "Google's search engine, Facebook's social network, and Amazon's online retail for conducting business in a near monopolistic fashion" at the expense of "a multitude of individuals who daily feed the data market. "These giants of the Internet are becoming more and more exclusive intermediaries between producers and consumers. "We should (therefore) not allow personal data to become the property of someone who collects them, and for this reason we must also continue to demand procedural transparency".

Those whose data is being used, Soro added, "must be able to acquire more knowledge and become active participants in the process and be able to request the protection of their data and the transparency of the process they undergo".

House Speaker Laura Boldrini said privacy safeguards were especially important for society's most vulnerable members, namely children. "When we speak of privacy that needs to be guaranteed, I believe we need to think first of all about those who are most exposed, like the young people struggling with the Web. It is an emergency that I never get tired of underlining," Boldrini told the House during the presentation of Italy's privacy authority report. "The web has extraordinary potential for emancipation, freedom and cultural growth, but requires new consciousness on themes regarding privacy," Boldrini continued, and cited the case of a teenage girl from Novara "who a few months ago decided to end it all after some of her peers posted two videos on Facebook that depicted her drunk". "It was a traumatic event, unfortunately not isolated, that calls on us parents, families and schools," but also poses the problem of devising a new approach, Boldrini said. The Speaker also defended the rights of journalists to report on newsworthy people and information, warning against the use of privacy as a pretext to hide information the public deserves to know. "The right to privacy must be reconciled with equally relevant rights, like the right and duty of newsgathering," Boldrini said. "Caring for the privacy and protection of personal data cannot ever be used as a pretext to put up barriers to information, nor can they be adopted by the public administration as a reason to avoid furnishing data that transparency requires making accessible.

"Recognizing the right to information does not mean that in the name of news the personal sphere can be wrecked. It is the responsibility of media operators to make the distinction between what is news and what is a private affair, or just gossip".

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