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Telecom data to top Cabinet agenda
Telecommunications MInister Nicolas Sehnaoui is seen in this Thursday, Feb. 23, 2012. (The Daily Star/Mahmoud Kheir)
Telecommunications MInister Nicolas Sehnaoui is seen in this Thursday, Feb. 23, 2012. (The Daily Star/Mahmoud Kheir)
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BEIRUT: A controversial request by the Internal Security Forces for wider access to the country’s telecoms data will top Cabinet’s agenda this week, with sessions planned for Monday and Wednesday.

Whether the ISF’s Information Branch should be able to access telecoms data, which it says it needs to investigate the October assassination of Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hasan, has become the subject of a row between March 8 and the March 14 opposition.

March 14 politicians back the ISF’s request to access the data, while March 8 politicians oppose it.

Telecommunications Minister Nicolas Sehnaoui, who has refused to approve the ISF’s request for new data, will ask the government to make a final decision on the matter Wednesday.

The dispute has split ministers in Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s government. Wednesday’s Cabinet session will likely see a heated debate between ministers in March 8 and those loyal to Mikati, President Michel Sleiman and the Progressive Socialist Party, who support the ISF request for the data.

In a letter to the Cabinet, Sehnaoui said the Telecoms Ministry considers the ISF’s request to be a violation of privacy and constitutional rights.

ISF chief Maj. Gen. Ashraf Rifi’s letter to the government, obtained by The Daily Star, asks for the content of all text messages sent between Aug. 21 and Oct. 20, a day after Hasan’s killing.

In addition, the letter requests information on the data sessions of all cell phones, including the usernames and passwords of users of cell phones with access to a 3G Internet connection.

In a letter to the Cabinet, Sehnaoui said that “these requests are in violation of what was previously agreed upon by the government. The government had stressed in its agreements that it would not provide the content of SMS.”

“The independent judicial committee confirmed in its decision that these requests are a violation of the law and the Constitution,” Sehnaoui added.

Pending a government agreement on a mechanism to regulate the work of the the ISF’s wiretapping command center in line with Law 140 of 1999, the Cabinet established a judicial committee earlier this year to approve or deny ISF requests. The committee includes judges Aoun Ramadani, Shukri Sader and Jean Fahd.

The ISF asked for similar data after an April attempt on the life of Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea.

“Providing the content of all SMS of Lebanon’s ... [telecoms companies] would be an infringement of personal freedoms and the right to private phone conversations guaranteed by the Constitution and Law 140,” said a February statement by the judicial committee, which was attached to Sehnaoui’s letter.

Cabinet is also set to discuss the financing of a new salary scale Monday, with teachers and public sector employees who would receive a wage hike from the change protesting near Baabda Palace.

Public sector employees have warned they will escalate and hold a general strike Wednesday if the government fails to refer a comprehensive draft law on the salary raise for public employees and teachers to Parliament.

In a statement last week, the employees’ Union Coordination Committee warned the government against backing down from its promise to send the proposal to Parliament.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 10, 2012, on page 3.
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