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15th Aug 2022

EU instrument for spying on 'radicals' causes outrage

Civil rights watchdogs and MEPs have attacked new EU plans to gather data on people who voice or share "radical messages" in a bid to pre-empt terrorist attacks.

Political activists labelled as "Extreme right/left, Islamist, nationalist or anti-globalisation" may in future find themselves under surveillance in line with a new, so-called, EU "data compilation instrument" put at the disposal of police and security forces in member states.

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  • Spying on people for their political beliefs is unacceptable, say MEPs (Photo: Photo: Xoe Cranberry)

The 70-question long "instrument," covering ideologies, dissemination channels, personal and professional data on "agents," would help police and security officials gather comparable intelligence across the EU, which could later be pooled together into a single data base.

Although non-binding, the guidelines can legitimise police co-operation and new practices in the member states. The instrument was made public last month by Statewatch, a civil liberties watchdog, after being agreed by EU ministers in April.

The data selection criteria are very broad and "flexible," with member states and EU institutions being "invited and advised to make best use, as they see fit, of the data compilation instrument provided for them, by amending it and tailoring it to their specific requirements," the internal EU document says.

MEPs dealing with justice and home affairs expressed their outrage at the decision, which was not subject to any parliamentary oversight.

"It's all incredibly vague. The danger is that this is spreading the net too wide, instead of gathering targeted information on people who are seriously becoming a terrorist threat," British Liberal MEP Sarah Ludford said in a telephone interview with this website. She has formally asked the Council to give an explanation of its decision.

"This kind of soft law doesn't really work. If they really wanted to do something serious, they would have to come up with a legal EU instrument and table it for co-decision in the European Parliament," she said.

The fundamental flaw of the mechanism is that by talking about "radicalisation" instead of terrorism, it includes in the same sweep swathes of political activists and dissenters, she explained.

"Being a radical is not the same as being a terrorist. I am a radical on data protection, for instance," Ms Ludford said. "A democratic society wouldn't work without dissenters. We didn't dismantle Communism and Fascism to start being suspicious at people who hold different views from the establishment."

The British peer noted that while the European Parliament was setting high data protection standards in negotiations with the US on a bank data transfer deal aimed at tracking terrorist financing, EU ministers seemed to have no similar concern when passing such "sloppy" decisions.

Her criticism was echoed by Benjamin Ward from Human Rights Watch, an international NGO fighting against human rights violations.

"Sharing and centralising in EU institutions data about persons who have not been convicted of a crime solely on the basis of their opinion is worrisome," he said.

"It is disturbing that the only reference to personal data protection is in relation to Europol [the bloc's police co-operation agency], not in relation to member states or the EU situation centre [an intelligence sharing unit], particularly given that the right to privacy and the protection of personal data are contained in the EU Charter on Fundamental Rights."

A similar database to the one envisaged at EU level already exists in Britain, The Guardian reports.

It monitors "environmental extremists" alongside far-right activists, dissident Irish republicans, loyalist paramilitaries, and al-Qaida inspired extremists.

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