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"Let's not talk about it": how the mass surveillance debate was silenced in Romania

The active suppression of debate about mass surveillance, SIM card registration and data retention by Romanian politicians reveals a twisted sense of priorities and little respect for the rights and demands of citizens.

Flickr/Cristi Breban. Some rights reserved. Flickr/Cristi Breban. Some rights reserved.

The Romanian mainstream media handled the Snowden leaks as just another piece of international news and, characteristically, the coverage of the subject was brief and died down quickly. The coverage was almost exclusively a rehash of American or European news, with little local views on the subject. The alternative media outlets and the blogosphere tackled the subject somewhat more boldly, yet their view on the issue could be described by a single word: “outrage”. Nevertheless, this added little insight to the conversation - “conversation" being a generous term because none really took place.

The media coverage was light, but the reaction of the authorities was bordering on non-existent. The initial Snowden leaks were released on 9 June 2013; the first significant declaration by a Romanian politician wasn't until 16 July. Sebastian Ghiță, a highly influential member of the ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD) gave an interview to HotNews.ro, in which the subject of mass surveillance was discussed, amongst others. Here are the most pertinent passages:

Reporter: I understand that you could envisage a program like PRISM for Romania?

Sebastian Ghiță: Yes, I strongly believe that Romanian security services should, either in cooperation with external partners, or by themselves, develop such capabilities. Unless they have already developed them.

R: Very critical reactions to such initiatives have surfaced abroad.

S.G.: From those pretending to care too much about society. Who should I trust more? Someone from the security services, who, supposedly, could abuse this information, or some lunatic who may want to blow up a university campus with some bomb? I'll tell you right now, we'll trust the people from the security services more. This is the reality all over the world and we have to get used to it. 

R: And what about the privacy infringement allegations? 

S.G.: Privacy is used as an excuse to protect criminality. Privacy should be protected, but the ability to harm society shouldn't, and I don't think any politician will harm civil liberties, but I don't think that we should sit idly by and tolerate all kinds of wrong in the name of liberty and human rights either.

Other politicians espoused similarly extreme views in the months following the Snowden revelations, expressing them en passant on televised talk shows. It is difficult to hold them accountable for these declarations though, as the video archives of most Romanian TV stations are not available online yet.

This "no big deal" attitude is revealing of the mindset of the Romanian political class. The PRISM revelations showed that what until then had been dismissed as wild conspiracy theory was in fact true, and throughout the western world, surveillance absolutists were put on the defensive. On the other hand, Romanian politicians (who are almost all surveillance absolutists) didn't even pretend to be embarrassed.

Sebastian Ghiță, in the same interview, proudly boasted that his party was preparing to introduce a bill making the registration of all prepaid mobile phone SIM cards mandatory. From 2011 until the Snowden leaks there had already been two attempts to pass legislation mandating SIM card registration, with a third one in the works. The first was initiated in March 2011 and was put to rest in December 2011. The second was initiated in December 2011, a week before the first bill was rejected, and was itself rejected in April 2013. The third attempt was initiated in March 2013, a month and a half before (yet again) the second one was rejected, and, in turn, got rejected in December 2013.

The fourth bill has been put forward by the government in April 2014 and it will soon start being debated in the parliament. The justifications put forward for such privacy-destroying measures are always the same: protection from terrorists, fighting crime etc. The stubbornness with which some Romanian politicians are pursuing SIM card registration legislation is quite telling about where their priorities lie.

The only significant communication by the security services happened on November 21, 2013, when George Maior, Director of the SRI (Serviciul Roman de Informatii – Romanian Intelligence Service) said in Parliament that:

[…] there was no secret accord or protocol or understanding between the SRI, as the national authority in communications intelligence, and the NSA regarding interception activities, interception procedures for classic communications channels or other communication channels on Romanian territory.

By that time, most Romanians had internalized the situation and fallen back into their default state of resignation, gallows humour or a combination of the two, with no actual conversation having taken place between civil society, weak as it is, and the political class, which, in its vast majority, sees in mass surveillance not a problem but a desirable goal to be attained with no consideration for what the public wants.

Apart from the lack of response to the Snowden leaks and the insistence on enforcing SIM card registration, the third issue that reveals the utter contempt of the political class for the Romanian citizens' rights and opinions is the issue of data retention.

The first Romanian data retention bill (adopting the mandatory 6 to 24 months' retention of the 2006 EU Data Retention Directive) was ruled unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court of Romania in 2009. At that point, Romania was being looked up to and used as an example to follow by rights organizations all over the EU, alongside a few other countries that refused to implement data retention, such as Germany or the Czech Republic.

This was one of the few instances where Romania could hold the moral high-ground on an important issue, but it didn't last very long. As in the case of the SIM card registration bills, a second bill on the same issue was introduced. In spite of the Constitutional Court's previous ruling, in spite of the fact that the Senate overwhelmingly rejected the second bill in December 2011 and in spite of the fact that the Human Rights Committee of the Chambers of Deputies gave the bill a negative vote, the Chamber of Deputies failed to fulfil their responsibility to defend the rights of the Romanian citizens: under the pretext of fearing sanctions from the European Commission, they passed the data retention bill into law. (More information on this can be found here.)

In April, when the European Court of Justice unequivocally ruled that data retention is illegal and infringes fundamental rights, there was no official reaction to the news whatsoever. Quite the contrary: the Romanian government was busy initiating the fourth SIM card registration bill.

Given this body of evidence, one can safely assume that there is little to no public conversation in Romania on the topic of surveillance. The political class wants more surveillance because more surveillance means more control and more control means more power; they use the terrorism excuse with abandon.

Combined with the typical Romanian politicians' disregard for the needs and wants of the citizens, the result can't be anything other than this total lack of public conversation. But, especially given our Communist past, many, if not most, people in Romania feel that they are being spied on. This state of mild paranoia and distrust is constantly being reinforced by various leaks of transcripts from intercepted phone conversations in the mainstream media.

Combine this with the feeling of helplessness created by the lack of conversation between the politicians and the public and the result is that Romanians are becoming more and more subclinically catatonic. This is no sustainable state for a country that wants to remain functional.

Read more from our 'Joining the dots on state surveillance' series here.


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