Thursday

26th Nov 2020

Investigation

Data watchdog raps EU asylum body for snooping

  • European Asylum Support Office specialists in Malta searched groups and channels on social media using keywords in languages such as Arabic, Pashtu, Kurdish, Edo and Amharic (Photo: Nidzara Ahmetasevic)

The European Asylum Support Office (EASO) monitored refugee networks to detect new routes and find smugglers – until the project ran into trouble with the EU's own data protection authority.

EASO combed through social media to monitor refugee routes to Europe over the past three years. The agency sent weekly reports on its findings to member states, the EU Commission and institutions such as UNHCR and Interpol.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

  • EU's new data protection supervisor Wojciech Wiewiórowski imposed a ban on the project (Photo: European Council)

The asylum agency, based in Malta, says its reports have helped to detect migrants on their way to Europe, but the monitoring activity has raised concern from data protection authorities.

EASO lacks a legal basis for collecting personal data on social media, the EU's data protection supervisor Wojciech Wiewiórowski said in a recent letter.

He imposed a temporary ban on the project.

EASO has monitored social media since January 2017. It took over a project and two employees from the UN refugee agency UNHCR, it announced then in its newsletter.

Refugees use groups on Facebook and YouTube channels to exchange news on routes and conditions in transit countries, the UNHCR's final report said.

According to their findings, migrants trust information from peers on social networking sites more than conventional media.

Social media is also used by smugglers and traffickers to advertise their services, the UN experts said. Their project ran from March to December 2016. Its initial focus was on fighting disinformation among refugees and migrants.

"It soon transpired, however, that the social media findings were useful to an extraordinary large number of different stakeholders in Europe", the report says.

EASO specialists in Malta on the project searched groups and channels on social media using keywords in languages such as Arabic, Pashtu, Kurdish, Edo and Amharic.

"Through the activity, EASO alerted national asylum and migration authorities on changes in migration routes, smuggling offers being made to migrants and potential asylum seekers, offers for the sale of fake documents which could be used to attempt to trick asylum authorities, as well as the reactions of asylum seekers and migrants to developments in countries of origin, transit and destination", a spokesperson for the EU agency told netzpolitik.org.

"The goal of the activities was to inform member states and prevent the abuse of vulnerable people", EASO spokesperson Anis Cassar said.

He declined to provide samples of the reports sent to EU member states and other agencies, citing their confidentiality.

Asked for a "success" due to their social media monitoring, the asylum office mentioned the "convoy of hope" in Greece.

Earlier this year, a group of several hundred people mainly from Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan tried to cross the border from Greece to Bulgaria. Border forces stopped them by firing teargas.

The spokesperson said social media monitoring had made the "very early detection" of the "convoy of hope" possible.

The hard-line response of EU countries to refugees and migrants seeking to enter Europe has sparked outrage from human rights groups.

A focus point is Libya, were migrants are frequently mistreated by local militia.

German diplomats have warned of "concentration camp-like" conditions in detention camps on the Libyan coast. New reports on the treatment of migrants in Libya frequently surface on social media.

EASO's spokesperson said he could not say whether reports ever included possible human rights violations against refugees, or if such violations were a priority for the monitoring team.

He noted "the reports certainly contributed to enabling national authorities to target smugglers, and to lives being saved". However, the agencies work was "different from law enforcement, border guard actions or anti-trafficking efforts."

The European data protection supervisor (EDPS) levelled harsh criticism at EASO in the letter from November 17.

Breach of GDPR

EU institutions are bound by new, stricter rules of data protection that were adopted last year in the wake of the General Data Protection Regulation.

The watchdog said the asylum agency had collected sensitive personal data about migrants, including their religious affiliation, without informing the data subjects.

EASO's spokesperson said that they did not agree with the interpretation of the law by the EDPS, but would nevertheless respect it.

The data protection authority warned that the filtering of information by language and keyword may "lead to assumptions of group behaviour that are inaccurate and may enhance risks of discrimination."

The watchdog also complained that a sample weekly report provided by EASO contained email addresses and a telephone number of migrants.

The asylum agency stressed that it took "excess measures to ensure that no personal data was ever stored".

EASO's spokesperson said there were no plans to re-start social media monitoring, however the agency regretted the "negative consequences" of not being able to inform member states.

The agency also warned of the "potential harmful impact on the safety of migrants and asylum seekers due to the restricted ability to be aware of their exploitation."

EASO has been in trouble with EU watchdogs before.

Last year, Politico reported that the anti-corruption agency OLAF was investigating misconduct at EASO in procurement, human resources and data protection as well as on accusations of bullying and "a culture of irresponsibility".

OLAF confirmed to netzpolitik.org that it had conducted an investigation and found irregularities, but declined to provide further details.

Meanwhile, the EU border agency Frontex recently halted its own social media monitoring project after severe criticism from campaign groups.

Frontex had published a tender worth €400,000 in September for social media services "concerning irregular migration trends and forecasts".

The EU agency was quizzed about the project by campaign group Statewatch and journalists at Mediapart.

It finally cancelled the tender after data protections concerns were raised by the NGO Privacy International.

Author bio

Alexander Fanta is an EU correspondent for netzpolitik.org, a German news website covering digital rights issues.

Migrants paying to get detained in Libyan centres

A trend has emerged over the past few months where desperate people are paying to get locked up in Libyan detention centres to escape the conflict and with the hope they stand a better chance of getting resettled to Europe.

Investigation

Exposed: French complicity in Yemen and Libya

French defence companies are providing training to Saudis on weapons that France's own military intelligence says puts almost 500,000 people in Yemen at risk. Meanwhile, new evidence has emerged of the French-built Mirage fighter jet being used in Libya.

Investigation

EU money used by neo-Nazi to promote Holocaust denial

A prominent Holocaust-denier has made the cover of an EU-funded newsletter, which was published by an avowed German neo-Nazi with a lengthy criminal record. The lack of clear labelling of the MEP behind it violates European Parliament rules.

Investigation

France opposed guidelines on EU presidency sponsorships

Internal document shows diplomats questioned whether the secretariat of the Council of the EU was legally allowed to write guidelines on the financing of the six-month rotating EU presidency activities.

News in Brief

  1. Dutch far-right leader resigns over antisemitism
  2. Germany to relax corona rules for Christmas
  3. New US leader against hard border in Ireland
  4. EU ties Afghanistan aid money to democracy
  5. EU drug regulator optimistic on vaccine prospects
  6. EU study warns of impact of non-CO2 aircraft emissions
  7. Cross-country MPs urge EU to protect Poles' rights
  8. MEPs adopt group-action consumer rights redress

Investigation

France opposed guidelines on EU presidency sponsorships

Internal document shows diplomats questioned whether the secretariat of the Council of the EU was legally allowed to write guidelines on the financing of the six-month rotating EU presidency activities.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersJoin the Nordic climate debate on 17 November!
  2. UNESDAMaking healthier diets the easy choice
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersUN Secretary General to meet with Nordic Council on COVID-19
  4. UNESDAWell-designed Deposit Return Schemes can help reach Single-Use Plastics Directive targets
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Council meets Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tichanovskaja
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Region to invest DKK 250 million in green digitalised business sector

Latest News

  1. Watchdog slams Commission on BlackRock 'green rules' deal
  2. EU reaches out to nationals of migrant origin
  3. German minister predicts rule-of-law solution in 'days'
  4. EU red-flags Israel's Givat Hamatos settlement
  5. US economic nationalism will be subtler - but it will persist
  6. Georgia's 'rigged' elections? Takeaways for the EU
  7. There is 'no Russia-Turkey alliance'
  8. EU air quality improves, but pollution levels still high

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us