BEIRUT: Telecoms Minister Nicolas Sehnaoui has opposed an Internal Security Forces request that he provide the content of the population’s text messages for intelligence purposes, reigniting a long-running controversy about access to telecommunications data.
Sehnaoui told The Daily Star Monday that the ISF Information Branch asked him late last month for the content of text messages from some 3,700,000 Lebanese citizens, to facilitate the investigation into the assassination of Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hasan.
The minister said he argued that the request is a violation of privacy, and referred the issue to Cabinet.
The Information Branch also asked for all Lebanese citizens’ passwords for email and social media sites, Sehnaoui said. The data was requested for the period of Sept. 13, 2012 to Nov. 10, 2012. Hasan, who served as the head of the Information Branch, was assassinated in October by a car bomb in the Ashrafieh neighborhood of Beirut.
“I referred the demand to the judicial committee [tasked with looking into these demands] and it opposed it,” he said. “The committee is only advisory, so I referred the request to the Cabinet,” added Sehnaoui, who said he is against providing the data.
“It violates the Constitution and the law,” he said. “Should we tell the Lebanese that we have suspended the Constitution and abolished their freedoms?” he asked. “Not a single country in the word would accept [the approval of such a request],” he added.
Sehnaoui said that the topic is not on the Cabinet’s agenda for Tuesday.
The minister said his opposition to the call for data does not stem only from a concern for privacy. He said that whoever acquires the data “will control the country.”
He said there is no exact formula for finding a balance between respecting privacy and using personal data to facilitate a thorough investigation.
If the Cabinet refuses to approve the ISF’s appeal, this could further distance it from the March 14 opposition. The coalition boycotted a National Dialogue session in July over the government’s refusal to give security bodies telecoms data March 14 said was essential for investigating attempts on the lives of its officials.
Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea escaped sniper fire in April at his Maarab residence, and March 14 official MP Butros Harb was the subject of a failed assassination attempt in July.
Hezbollah, who dominates the Cabinet along with its March 8 allies, has expressed concern that releasing any telecoms data could jeopardize the security of its officials.
In the face of accusations that it was facilitating assassinations by withholding data, the Cabinet provided security bodies with the data they requested in July. This data did not include the content of telephone conversations or text messages.
Speaking to The Daily Star Monday, Interior Minister Marwan Charbel said that the Telecommunications Ministry had decided to provide the requested data, but only for the governorates of Mount Lebanon and Beirut.
But Sehnaoui denied this, saying that his ministry had not approved this nor had it been asked to do so.