27th May 2019


EU must guard against security creep

George Orwell would surely have been impressed by the linguistic capabilities of the current US administration.

The influential English writer invented the term 'newspeak' in his famous novel 1984, describing the co-option of language for political purpose. Newspeak has become common, especially with military clichés like 'collateral damage' (dead civilians) and 'fog of war' (a shifting of responsibility for things you shouldn't have done, as in 'It wasn't us who killed those journalists, it was the fog of war').

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  • Under US influence, the EU is taking its own actions to boost security, STEPHEN GARDNER writes (Photo: EUobserver)

The Bush administration has made significant contributions to the newspeak lexicon. The USA Patriot Act, adopted soon after September 11 2001, is a prime example. It significantly expanded US government powers to collect information and conduct surveillance, whilst reducing legal checks and balances. This is 'patriotic'. Opponents of the Act are therefore unpatriotic, thus un-American and potentially supporters of terrorism. Such use of language to create black and white divisions can be highly effective in suppressing even the most reasonable dissent.

The security creep

But what does this have to do with Europe? The answer is that the EU is being affected by a kind of 'security creep', directly influenced by the US.

This security creep - or paranoia creep, depending on how you look at it - influences the EU in two ways.

Firstly, under US influence, the EU is taking its own actions to boost security. A recent example was agreement on common rules to prevent cyber crime, under which people attacking or interfering with information systems face prison. Other initiatives include setting up a European Agency for Information and Network Security and strengthening Europol.

Secondly, and arguably more seriously, new US rules are impacting directly on Europe. The US Aviation and Transport Security Act, for example - another post September 11 measure - imposes on airlines flying to the US the requirement to give US authorities access to the data they hold on passengers and crew.

Data exchange

The US is also due to sign into law the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Reform Act. This will require anyone entering the US from October 2004 to carry some form of biometric identification - fingerprints or similar embedded in passports or visas. These initiatives place huge obligations - and costs - on EU countries.

These trends are extremely concerning. It is ironic that all this activity, which to a great extent concerns collection of information, is taking place in a kind of information vacuum. The situation is complex and few people are aware of what is being done to keep them 'secure'.

If they were, they might reflect that their rights are simply not being protected. The EU approach has been characterised by a lack of what politicians like to call joined-up thinking. The European Commission agreed to US demands regarding the new air passenger data regulations rather hastily, attracting strong criticism from the European Parliament and Member State data protection authorities, whose laws may even be contravened by the Commission's compliance.

The EU's own initiatives have also been confused. More and more data is being exchanged across Europe via a multiplicity of systems. The Schengen Information System, Eurodac, the Europol information system and others have been set up at different times for different purposes, but often overlap and duplicate one another. The overall trend has been for increased police co-operation but not enough data protection. Meanwhile, EU data protection laws are often poorly transposed and enforced, and Member State data protection authorities are under-resourced.

In the face of US pressure

It sometimes seems that data is being collected for the sake of it - not for any practical purpose. In this context it is essential the EU reaffirms some fundamental principles. EU citizens have a basic right to protection of their data and this must be upheld. Any collecting of data or security measure should therefore be proportionate to the real risks involved.

Secondly, the EU must work more effectively in the face of the obligations being imposed by the US. A united front is essential, to ensure that due negotiations take place, and that there are sufficient checks and balances to protect the fundamental right of EU citizens. Hasty agreements made by the European Commission in the face of US pressure, without appropriate consultation, are just not acceptable.

The need for the EU to organise its response is even more pressing in the face of the US Domestic Security Enhancement Act, known as `Patriot II', which is looming on the horizon. It will give the authorities even broader surveillance and arrest powers, including the right to strip Americans of their citizenship. Even right-wing organisations like the American Conservative Union and Gun Owners of America have expressed doubts.

A Gun Owners of America spokesman explained that the first Patriot Act hadn't bothered the organisation too much, as it had been aimed at non-US citizens. But Patriot II is different.

"A lot of people could become non-citizens," he said. "The whole thing is Orwellian."

STEPHEN GARDNER - is a freelance journalist, researcher and EU affairs consultant based in Brussels and the UK. He runs the website, a collective of freelance journalists writing on European affairs and working across Europe in countries such as France, Italy, Norway, Scotland and Ukraine.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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