22nd Oct 2016

EU seeks access to 'digital evidence'

Hours after offering his resignation, Belgium's minister of justice Koen Geens said its intelligence services need greater access to people's telephone and internet records.

The announcement follows talks among 28 interior ministers on Thursday (24 March) as EU states seek to boost intelligence sharing in the wake of the Brussels attacks earlier this week.

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The deadly twin blasts in the country's capital on Tuesday will likely speed up domestic legislation to give its intelligence agency sweeping powers to eavesdrop on people's communication and boost its controversial data retention laws.

Geen, whose resignation was rejected by Belgium's prime minister, said they want greater access to online messaging and calling services like Skype and VIP.

"These kinds of exchanges of communication should really get accessible for us," he said.

The ensuing collective statement from the EU ministers makes broad reference to similar ideas.

It notes ways need to be found "to secure and obtain more quickly and effectively digital evidence". Law enforcement authorities will also need to have "direct contact" with service providers.

The EU Council, representing member states, wil meet in June to "identify concrete measures to address this complex issue".

Those measures will have to fall in line with a 2014 European Court of Justice decision that declared the EU's data retention laws illegal.

But the spate of terrorist attacks in Europe has intensified pressure on EU governments to present something to the wider public.


Among the more obvious is the EU passenger name records directive (EU PNR).

The bill aims to track down criminals and potential terrorists by handing over to the police large amounts of personal data, such as credo card numbers or dietary preferences, from passengers flying in Europe.

The European Parliament has been criticised by national governments and the EU commission for not yet voting on the bill.

Parliament's vice-president Sylvie Guillaume said they want to first link the bill to the reformed European data protection regulation.

But the data regulation first needs to be signed off by the Council.

"As soon as the council is ready to adopt the text on data protection, which can be done next month, we would be able to adopt both texts in the plenary," she said.

She gave 28 April as a provisional date for the plenary adoption of both pieces of legislation.

She noted PNR "would have been useless" to stop the explosions in Brussels.

Others, like France's interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve, are advocating for its swift adoption.

"We can no longer wait," he said.

Lack of intelligence sharing among EU states

Geens rejected notions that intelligence was not being shared among EU states, saying that three interior ministers had informed him of "important information" in the aftermath of the bombings.

"I cannot go into detail," he said.

But the EU commission is wary of EU states' intelligence sharing practices.

Home affairs commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos told reporters that the recent attacks in Brussels and the deadly shooting spree in Paris last November may have been averted had classified information been shared.

"There is a lack of trust [among EU state intelligence agencies], otherwise, things might be predicted and then prevented," he said.

The same ministers had gathered late last November in the wake of the Paris shootings where they promised to implement a number of EU-policy measures to counter terrorism.

Thursdays' response is largely a repeat of November's, prompting questions on the sincerity of pledges to coordinate efforts against future threats.

As in November, ministers on Thursday promised to tighten external border controls, share information in EU-level databases, and impose systematic checks on everyone leaving and entering the EU.

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