If youve recently tried to use the internet in a call centre in Rome (or anywhere else in Italy) you will have noticed that its impossible unless you have your passport (or carta didentit) at hand for the requisite procedure. This involves the photo page being thrown open and slapped down on the one place where reproductions of our most hideous, most guarded image can be realised the photocopier. As one whose ten-year passport is near expiry, thus containing a picture depicting more a battle scene between acne and a first attempt at a full beard than symmetrical and discernible facial features, the thought of presenting a complete stranger with the surety of a laugh gives pause for thought.
This hasslesome requirement has led some to be suspicious and others critical of a procedure that slows the rhythm of Italian life still further. But it also begs questions about what the Italian ministry of the interior hopes to achieve by the mass registration of users of the worldwide Cyber Tiber as well as about other Italian anti-terrorism legislation that may encroach on the private domain.
After Italy passed a new anti-terrorism package in July 2005, authorities ordered shops, hostels and hotels providing public communications services to make photocopies of customers ID documents, whether they were using internet or other telecommunications facilities. The same businesses are also required to keep records of which computer is used by whom, as well as log-in and log-out times. In addition, internet caf operators must be able to track what sites are visited. All traffic needs to be logged and periodically the records must be turned in to the local police headquarters.
Passed within weeks of the London bombings last summer, the law is part of the most extensive anti-terror package introduced in Italy in recent years. The law widened the definition of terrorism in the Italian criminal code to include promoting, constituting, organising, managing or financing organisations that intend to carry out violent activities, or assisting any individual who participates in such organisations.
It reinforced the provisions in legislation passed in December 2001, in the aftermath of the attacks on the Twin Towers in New York, and between them the two laws give the police and other investigating authorities sweeping powers to pursue suspected terrorists. For example, they permit the authorisation of DNA testing without consent in cases of suspected terrorism (on condition that the dignity of the individual be respected) and facilitate the detention (24 hours without access to a lawyer) or expulsion of non-Italian nationals suspected of terrorism.
Italy is the only European Union (EU) country to require internet cafs to record ID information, although non-EU member Switzerland requires those who log in at internet cafs to show identification. However, last December the EU did agree on a data-retention policy requiring service providers to retain records of calls and emails for a maximum of two years. Email content, however, is supposed to remain private and can only be made available to law enforcement bodies through a court order. The policy was stiffly resisted by Europes telecommunications industry for its cost, intrusive nature and impracticality. In fact, Ireland, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia opposed the move but they did not have enough votes to reject it outright.
Slim Halouani is the manager of a hostel near Termini station and another in the Vatican area, both of which offer free internet access to all guests. The new regulations are a nuisance and I dont see their sense in practical terms, he declares. He harbours little confidence that logging clients internet activity could help prevent a terrorist attack and quickly adds that the new requirements only create more paperwork.
David OBryan of Chicago, in the United States, visiting Rome for the first time, agrees that the process is cumbersome but even if it saves only one life, its worth the extra few minutes. Besides, as long as youve got nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about.
There has been little public debate in the Italian media about intrusion of privacy since the new measures took effect last summer. Considering the healthy culture of protest in Rome, the absence of any major opposition to the measures seems to indicate that Romans, and indeed Italians in general, support the reinforced anti-terror laws.
Or is it that they are simply proud of their passport photos?
Whatever the case, the fact is that Italian anti-terror legislation and the powers now available to authorities represent some of the most far-reaching in the EU.