Greece's privacy watchdog head quits over traffic cameras used to monitor demonstrations

The usage of traffic cameras to monitor demonstrations made the head of Greece's privacy watchdog resign, raising the stakes in a heated dispute over civil liberties.

Dimitris Gourgourakis said police "directly breached" his powerful Data Protection Authority's regulations by using closed-circuit cameras for surveillance at a central Athens protest Saturday, despite a ban.

"I believe this constitutes a blow to the authority's independence," said Gourgourakis, a former senior judge. The authority's deputy head and another two members also stepped down in protest.

Opposition parties accused the conservative government of trying to weaken the authority.

The resignations follow a long-running dispute between the government and the authority over police use of surveillance cameras installed in 2004 for the Athens Olympic Games, which has sparked a broad debate on privacy rights in Greece.

About 350 cameras positioned on busy thoroughfares and public squares as part of a 1 billion EUR(US$1.47 billion) Olympic security umbrella are used for traffic monitoring, and the DPA has turned down police requests for their broader use.

A final decision is pending from the Council of State, Greece's highest administrative court.

Last month, a senior prosecutor ruled that police could position cameras at public gatherings and then use any incriminating videotape to identify and prosecute those caught on film committing crimes

But Gourgourakis said the DPA was the only authority competent to rule on the matter, under its constitutional mandate.

Justice Minister Sotiris Hatzigakis accepted the resignations. "Even independent authorities are not above the Constitution," he said.

The main opposition Socialists backed the DPA. "(The government) has achieved its aim to degrade ... an independent authority," party spokesman Yiannis Ragoussis said. "This is a severe blow to our justice system and the protection of human rights."

The government, re-elected in September, has long supported the police in their bid for full access to the camera system, saying it would help them do their jobs more effectively - particularly in monitoring demonstrations, which often degenerate into violence.

Privacy and human rights groups say such camera use encourages snooping and curtails the civil liberties of Greece's 11 million people. The cameras have been a frequent target for arson attack by anarchist groups.

Under DPA regulations, surveillance cameras can only be used for the protection of people or goods, or to monitor traffic.

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Author`s name Angela Antonova