Monday

13th Jul 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

Support quality EU news

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

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.

Investigation

Revealed: little evidence to justify internal border checks

EUobserver has obtained notification reports from five European states explaining why they want to impose internal border checks. Few provide any substantial evidence to justify the controls, putting the European Commission in a difficult position to end them.

Pesticide chlorpyrifos banned by EU

EU member states have voted to ban from the market chlorpyrifos, a pesticide which is toxic to the brain in both its forms, and has been the subject of a long-running Le Monde and EUobserver investigation.

News in Brief

  1. Citizens' perception of judicial independence drops
  2. Irish finance minister voted in as eurogroup president
  3. Italy's League party opens office near old communist HQ
  4. 'Significant divergences' remain in Brexit talks
  5. Germany identifies 32,000 right-wing extremists
  6. WHO to hold probe of global Covid-19 response
  7. China accuses Australia of 'gross interference' on Hong Kong
  8. EU to let Croatia, Bulgaria take first step to join euro

Feature

How corporate lobbyists steer EU law-making

Former EUobserver investigations editor Peter Teffer has written a new book about how lobbying in the EU works. The EU's focus on the internal market offers corporate lobbyists a perfect means to forward their interests.

Investigation

G4S: the EU's preferred security contractor

The British multinational security company G4S lost its contract with the European Parliament in 2011 in a backlash from MEPs over alleged abuses in Israel. Today, they guard the parliament's main entrance and have become the EU's top security provider.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. UNESDANext generation Europe should be green and circular
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersNEW REPORT: Eight in ten people are concerned about climate change
  3. UNESDAHow reducing sugar and calories in soft drinks makes the healthier choice the easy choice
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersGreen energy to power Nordic start after Covid-19
  5. European Sustainable Energy WeekThis year’s EU Sustainable Energy Week (EUSEW) will be held digitally!
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic states are fighting to protect gender equality during corona crisis

Latest News

  1. Michel lays out compromise budget plan for summit
  2. Border pre-screening centres part of new EU migration pact
  3. EU 'failed to protect bees and pollinators', report finds
  4. MEPs give green light to road transport sector reform
  5. If EU wants rule of law in China, it must help 'dissident' lawyers
  6. Five ideas to reshape 'Conference on Future of Europe'
  7. EU boosts pledges to relocate minors from Greece
  8. Hydrogen strategy criticised for relying on fossil fuel gas

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us