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20th Feb 2020

Spy agencies launch 'real-time' terror tracker

  • Europol has processed some 80 terabytes of data on terrorism (Photo: Europol)

European intelligence agencies launched a shared "interactive real-time" database over the summer to track suspected jihadists, EUobserver has learned.

The move is part of a broader EU-wide trend triggered by last year's migration crisis, a spate of terror attacks and the threat of Islamist fighters returning to Europe from Syria.

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Dozens of intelligence agencies at the Dutch-led Counter-Terrorism Group (CTG) in The Hague set up an "interactive operative real-time information system" of people suspected of being "jihadist troublemakers", said Germany's federal ministry of interior in a document seen by this website.

The CTG was founded in 2002 and includes some 30 intelligence agencies from around Europe.

Dubbed Operation Platform, the system was launched in July, but no public statement was released at the time. A February statement from both the German and Dutch intelligence agencies had announced a July launch of a system.

One senior EU official has described it as an IT system with people working on it 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

How they access people's details in real time and what details are stored is unclear.

There are also larger questions on oversight and fundamental rights, and the system has echoes of the US-led mass surveillance disclosed in 2014 by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

The blow-back from the Snowden revelations is still playing out.

Despite this, 23 out of 30 European intelligence agencies and services "promised" to participate in Operation Platform. Germany says it has sent one officer from its domestic intelligence agency, the BfV.

Merging police and intelligence agencies

The general lack of cooperation among various domestic intelligence and law enforcement agencies was also repeatedly highlighted in the wake of the terror attacks in both Paris and Brussels.

The German government, for instance, said two-thirds of people that have gone to fight in Syria or Iraq were known to the police. Of those, another third have criminal records. Similar data is found in France and the Netherlands.

The fear of further attacks has enabled lawmakers to propose new powers or extend existing ones.

Earlier this year, Bernard Barbier, the former head of signals intelligence at France's foreign intelligence agency (DGSE), mulled a merger idea with the German foreign intelligence agency (BND).

But the launch of a single shared real-time database may be a step forward to laying the groundwork of deeper cooperation, also between the police and intelligence agencies.

The EU's apparent direct involvement with national intelligence agencies is also likely to raise both legal implications and ethical questions amid wider sensitivities on privacy and data protection.

The German document notes, for instance, the EU police agency Europol, which is also based in The Hague, has set up a "strategic" relationship with the Operation Platform.

Europol did not respond to this website on how it interacts with the Counter Terrorism Group, where the platform is based.

But EUobserver understands internal moves are being made to bridge the Group with Europol's European counter-terrorism centre, launched at the start of the year, with a so-called fusion centre.

Europol, on its own, has more than 80 terabytes of data in which more than 12 million bits of communication are processed.

It has dedicated a so-called Secure Information Exchange Network Application (Siena) system that connects 43 units working on counter terrorism that allows them to share sensitive information. Europol also works with 44 countries and hosts some 210 liaison officers under the same building.

The EU's counter-terrorism coordinator Gilles de Kerchove also is publicly pushing to intensify cooperation between police and the intelligence agencies.

Kerchove has no operational role at the Counter Terrorism Group. But he does meet the heads of member state security services at the Group every six months.

Andrej Hunko, a German MP from the Die Linke party, told this website that the democratic control over the EU agenda on internal and external security has been lost.

Hunko is leading a parliamentary probe into German security and intelligence activities.

"In light of Germany’s experience with the Gestapo, this is a delicate issue in our country, where there is a clear legal distinction between these two areas," he said.

He said the platform was developing quickly, noting that the CTG is also invited to terrorism working groups at the EU Council, representing member states.

"The EU thus appears to be merging the work of police and intelligence services – in secret," he said.

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