Belgium wants to oblige chat apps to keep metadata

The Belgian federal government wants to legally oblige chat applications such as WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Telegram to store metadata. The bill has already been approved by the federal government. The law is expected to come into effect next fall.

That writes the Belgian newspaper De Standaard. Other media such as De Morgen and De Tijd also write about this issue.

Metadata is not about the content

When we talk about metadata in chat applications, it comes down to things like who contacted whom, the time of the contact, how long they talked to each other or sent messages back and forth, and the geographic location of the sender and recipient. Metadata, therefore, says nothing about the content of the communication.

The latter is, however, impossible. Over-The-Top or OTT services such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger have been using end-to-end encryption for many years. Without a private key, which is only owned by the sender and receiver, it is impossible to intercept or eavesdrop on messages.

Encryption is allowed, but not at the expense of collecting metadata

That is also not what the federal government of Belgium is aiming for. The government, therefore, writes in the bill that encryption is allowed ‘to guarantee the confidentiality of communications and the security of payments’. However, encryption should not hinder the retention of metadata such as identification, traffic and location data. Providers are already obliged to keep this information, the government wants chat applications such as WhatsApp, Telegram and Signal to do the same.

To achieve this, the government has formulated a bill that legally obliges chat apps to store metadata. Such information is crucial for law enforcement and investigative authorities and courts to reconstruct a crime and identify a suspect. Metadata can show who had contact with whom and when. Such information can make the difference between acquittal or conviction of a suspect.

Better privacy protection

De Tijd writes that the intended law is a response to the annulment of the data retention law by the Belgian Constitutional Court earlier this year. This law stipulated that providers had to keep traffic and location data of all Belgian mobile numbers for one year as a preventive measure. Intelligence services could then request this information if it was necessary for the investigation of a crime. Call and SMS data were also stored.

The Belgian League for Human Rights and other privacy and human rights organizations considered this a serious invasion of the privacy of citizens. In their view, the preventive maintenance and massive storage of this data were in violation of the right to privacy. The Constitutional Court agreed with them and cancelled the data retention law.

Deputy Prime Minister and Justice Minister Vincent van Quickenborne said he would come up with a new law in response to the ruling. On the one hand, the envisaged law should make it easier for intelligence and security services to fight crime. On the other hand, the law must better protect the privacy of citizens.

New law active next autumn

The bill has already been approved by the federal government. In the coming months, the government expects all kinds of reports from advisory bodies. The comments and comments are incorporated into the law. Then it is the turn of the parliament to express their approval or disapproval. The law is expected to come into effect next fall.

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