Security Information AgencyБезбедносно-информативна агенција

Number of tapped persons - secret in Slovenia as well

BIA in media / Politika - May 20, 2009

At one time, recalling the Law on Free Access to Information, a non-governmental organization Youth Initiative for Human Rights requested from the Security-Information Agency (BIA) a piece of information regarding the number of citizens whose calls were intercepted in the year 2005. BIA has made no reply and neither order coming from Commissioner Rodoljub Šabić did help public disclosure of the data come through. The public remained puzzled by the question why a piece of merely statistical information was kept secret, given that apart from the figure no further details about tapped citizens, reasons for such a measure or similar information had been requested. After considerable length of time, BIA issued a reply saying that there was no specific document containing the requested information, and stating in addition that the Agency is not required by law to make a document of that kind. On the other hand, the VBA disclosed at one time that it intercepted calls of 35 suspicious persons in the course of 2007.

Those who felt that BIA had acted accordingly pointed to Slovenia, which practised free access to information for a longer period of time. In 2005 Nataša Pirc Musar, the Slovenian Commissioner for free access to information and personal data protection, twice rejected the request of a Slovenian citizen who wanted to know how many persons the Slovenian security service SOVA monitored through interception. She stated that the disclosure of such data, classified as secret by law, would reveal a lot about the scope of work of the secret service itself. In the meantime, both the Law on secret services and the one on access to information have undergone some changes and the question is whether that kind of data would be easier to get in Slovenia nowadays.

- At the time when I was about to make the said decision, I scrutinised carefully lots of cases and talked to our secret service and I did not want to act as a bull in a china shop because state security is an important matter. What decision would I make today? If someone asked for data older than five years, I would most likely say that it should be made public. If a small country like Slovenia reveals the number of persons whose calls have been intercepted for the current year or the year before, then foreign secret services may determine, on the basis of that information, the strength of our intelligence service, assess how many people work for the service and in what areas. Even though we are dealing with mere statistics, a lot can be seen from such data and that is a very sensitive matter. However, I think that after a certain number of years citizens have the right to learn about what happened in the past. As for the present situation, one should be a bit more careful because we are still tackling a sensitive subject – Nataša Pirc Musar, the participant of the yesterday’s regional meeting on personal data protection organized in Belgrade, told Politika.

Even if they seem like mere index numbers, some pieces of information are classified as secrets according to the Law on secret information and this must be taken into account, Nataša Pirc Musar said. With regard to the number of citizens whose calls are intercepted and those placed under surveillance, Slovenian Commissioner mentioned that other European countries did not consider public disclosure of such data a common practice, with the exception of US which makes no secret of such data. Still, the amended Slovenian Law on free access to information under some circumstances allows for public disclosure of data officially classified as secret.

- The first instance is the so-called public interest test which can be applied only to restricted and confidential data, i.e. the data with the lowest degree of classification, whilst secrets and top secrets are exempted from the test. However, a commissioner has a lawful right of access to such classified data for the purpose of assessment and justification of its future protection – said Nataša Pirc Musar.

Twenty-nine countries, out of total of eighty-eight countries which have adopted the legislation on free access to information, have incorporated the so-called public interest test in the said acts. More simply, it is an evaluation method which serves to determine whether public disclosure of some information can possibly be harmful, or more precisely, whether the public interest in learning about the information outweighs the harm likely to arise from disclosure. In practice, a balancing of competing interests is applied to each case separately.

Nataša Pirc Musar went on to say that Slovenian regulation is state of the art and it allows both her and the Commissioner for Personal Data Protection, as well as Ombudsman, to monitor secret services’ actions regarding personal data.

Marija Petrić