European IT policing plans raises privacy hackles

By David Haworth

On the basis that you only notice a door close if you’re on the wrong side of it, the next six months of Sweden’s European Union (EU) leadership will see the launching of a five year justice plan for more citizens’ rights and better law enforcement coordination.

[] “One of the first duties of the state is to protect its citizens. Without security, there can be no freedom for European citizens,” a Swedish government briefing letter blandly asserts.

“But neither can there be citizen security if protection is provided while disregarding certain rights," it continues in an uncontroversial statement of the obvious.

The EU interior and justice ministers are already working to give practical effect to the Swedish ambition and hope to agree a package of measures – dubbed the Stockholm Programme – by the year’s end.

A spies’ nest is to be created wielding the elegant title: “Agency for the management of large IT systems in the area of freedom, security and justice.”

As said, the aim is to focus on the best ways to balance the citizens’ protection from crime, terrorism and illegal migration with the need to protect them from excessive severity from their own governments.

The discussion document invites all EU governments to suggest what the continent’s security priorities should be, how member countries should work with their neighbours to achieve those priorities and how to manage the massive flows of security information already swishing around the Union.

Much of the strategy’s stealthy preparation has been in the hands of the EU’s so-called “Future Group”, a body of officials and security experts, which would have made George Orwell cackle with recognition.

The establishment of the proposed Euro 100 million common data centre to house personal information, bringing together all the separate systems which hold details of crimes, finger-printing and stuff about all who have asked for political asylum.

Trouble is, as German MEP Alexander Alvaro puts it, “Centralising a huge amount of different data only makes sense if you want to create profiles of all individuals.”

Big Brother is on the way but he treads with silent feet.

As the Future Group’s jargon describes it, the idea is to build an “information system architecture” for the whole 27-member bloc. “The EU should fully exploit the new technologies in security matters and adjust itself to the digital era,” the Group stresses.

This is backed up by the European Commission which proposes the creation of a European agency to manage the Union’s databases on visa, travel and finger-printing.

Civil rights organizations are foaming about such proposals, not because they are easy-going about crime or terrorism, but because they are clear sighted about what new surveillance technologies have already achieved.

They bring within range of the authorities digital details of everything an individual uses, every transaction they make, and wherever they go.

Tony Bunyan, director of the admirable Statewatch organization believes that the EU has become the most spied upon region of the world and cites, for example, that the surveillance of all telecommunications and mass finger-printing have not even been proposed in the USA.  

By contrast, the mandatory retention of everyone’s data, calls, emails, mobiles, internet usage, has already started in the EU.

In a fierce critique of the sinister corollary to what is done in security’s name, Bunyan says that remote searches of computer hard drives, unbeknown to the user, are already commonplace.

He is up against the familiar dilemma: “If it’s possible technically, why shouldn’t it be introduced?”

It’s ironic – or perhaps fitting – that the next five years of hi-tech intrusions should be mustered in Sweden, one of the world’s most regulated societies, where every aspect of life from cradle to death pivots on a citizen’s ID number. All dealings with the state, and indeed with others, oblige that number’s systemic use, like the defining digits of the military or prison.

This is justified by the familiar mantra about the EU’s “shared values”. Elevating the argument above the technical, Bunyan says values in the 27 member EU are neither “shared” nor “common”.

Rather they are promoted by a “ruling elite who assume they can define and propagate an EU consensus where there is none.”

He concludes that, yes, in developing its “Stockholm” strategy the EU is showing its faith in technology but this has nothing to do with values, whatever ministers protest.