9th Dec 2023


Why your data might already be on a Europol list

  • Once the police have your data, you may inadvertently become a suspect in an open investigation (Photo: Jordi Boixareu/ZUMA Wire/dpa)
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You don't have to be a civil rights defender or even an opposition voice to end up on a police list. You don't even have to commit a crime.

And yet in today's EU, innocent people are being swept up in a police digital dragnet that risks eroding the very basis of democracy.

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Police forces around Europe seem hooked on the habit of collecting information on a massive scale and forwarding it to the EU's police agency, Europol. This undermines privacy, fair trial rights and the presumption of innocence.

Once the police have your data, you may inadvertently become a suspect in an open investigation. In defence of hard-fought freedoms, the public needs to curb police overreach.

It shouldn't be the case, but the national police and the EU's police agency Europol are having a hard time getting the memo.

At Statewatch, we teamed up with European Digital Rights (EDRi), a Brussels-based network of European network of experts defending human rights in the digital era. Together we published a guide encouraging individuals to request the data held on them by Europol.

Why worry?

In November 2022, Extinction Rebellion in the Netherlands broke into Amsterdam's Schiphol airport to prevent private jets from taking off. The protest helped usher in an official ban on private jets at the airport.

Yet months later, the police sent out a letter to 176 people allegedly present at the Schiphol protest. Some faced criminal charges despite being somewhere else on that day.

The police, according to the NGO Bits of Freedom, "cross-referenced pictures taken during the protest with 'open sources' such as Facebook and Twitter in order to identify protestors".

Although in most cases people successfully rebutted the accusation, the police still kept their personal data on file.

Dissent and resistance are hallmarks of any functioning democracy. Yet these individuals are being increasingly targeted.

One example involves Dutch peace activist Frank van der Linde, who was flagged as a terrorist suspect on a technicality, in order for the Dutch police to alert their German counterparts. Europol had been looped in.

Van der Linde filed a request for access to the data held about him by Europol. While the case is still ongoing, Europol has already been caught in the act of obstructing the right to access by trying to delete information about the case.

And Van der Linde's case is far from unique. Europol, in its Terrorism Situation and Trend Report of 2023, states that "the line between environmental activism and environmental extremism is often a blurred one, yet some of environmental activists' narratives might have the potential to incite violence among extremists".

The last change in the Europol regulation has only increased the power of the agency to receive and process massive amounts of data about individuals — with little (if any) monitoring.

A recent investigation also shows that Europol has been pushing EU lawmakers to grant it unfiltered access to data from private messaging apps in order to detect child sexual abuse.

The sharing of information about a suspect should only happen on a case-by-case basis for individuals accused of a serious crime. In any case, individuals are not informed when their data is shared with Europol.

Yet, they can learn about it by asking the agency.

EDRi's guide offers people around Europe a clear roadmap on why and how it should be done. It provides an efficient way to challenge police's abusive use of data and hold them accountable for it.

Feeling free to express dissent about a government policy is a vital aspect of democracy. Surveillance should not prevent us from expressing our opinions and organising ourselves against injustices and power abuses. Now more than ever, it is essential to reveal and put a cap on the policing of pacific protest.

Author bio

Romain Lanneau is a researcher for Statewatch, the NGO monitoring civil liberties in Europe. Chloé Berthélémy works on European policy for the European Digital Rights Initiative (EDRi).


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


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