Daniel Hamilton: The Commission’s INDECT project: the dawn of EU-sponsored snooping?

In 2007 – over two years before the Lisbon Treaty entered into effect – the European Council adopted to so-called Prum Convention as means by which to reinforce cooperation between Member States on issues such as combating illegal immigration, crime border crime-fighting and preventing terrorist attacks on EU Member States.

While a number of European Union Member States (the United Kingdom included), had initially opted to remain outside its operating structures which demand that signatories share centrally-held information on DNA, fingerprints and motor vehicle registration freely when undertaking investigations into suspected terrorist activity, this data is now shared freely across the EU’s 27 Member States.

Such is the European Commission’s drive to be seen as an effective actor in global policy that what started as an act of mere cooperation on anti-terrorist operations has now assumed an EU-institutional identity in its own right. Indeed, the European Commissioner for Justice Vivienne Reding has openly called for a “building the European Justice Area” to supplant national crime-fighting institutions.

One such area in which the European Union wishes to assert its dominance as a crime-fighting body in its own right is in relation to the internet; a largely unregulated sphere, whose international nature makes it ripe for supranational meddling.

As with most events in Brussels, it is highly unlikely that any but the most seasoned of Euro-anoraks will have heard of the European Commission’s £10 million INDECT project, a snappy title for the “Intelligent information system supporting observation, searching and detection for security of citizens in urban environment”.

In the project’s own words, the EU has tasked scientists with creating a system which will allow for the “registration and exchange of operational data, acquisition of multimedia content, intelligent processing of all information” accessed online in the EU in order to detect terrorists operating online. While the words used to describe the project might appear impenetrable to all by computer technicians, the intention of the project is clear: the creation of a vast database of all web sites, discussion forums, file servers and peer-to-peer networks accessed by the EU’s 500 million citizens.

In the United Kingdom, civil liberties campaigners continue to hold out hope that the Coalition Government will abandon its plans to resurrect the Labour Party’s £2 billion Intercept Modernisation Programme (IMP). The IMP, if fully implemented, would allow the British security services and the Police to spy on the activities of everyone using a phone or the internet. Every communications provider would be obliged to store details of personal communications for at least a year and obliged in due course to surrender them to the authorities. According to the plans, the authorities would be able to track every phone call, email, text message and website visit made by the public on the absurd pretext that it will help to tackle crime or terrorism.

If INDECT’s aims are satisfied, such arguments would be largely academic given that information regarding personal communications would be logged centrally by the European Union regardless.

Thankfully, despite its grandiose – and frankly rather sinister – aims, the INDECT project is at present in its early stages of infancy.

Concerned with the prospect of the European Union essentially possessing the power to profile each of the more than 300 million internet users on the continent, a small group of MEPs have expressed their concern about the project’s impact upon fundamental rights and civil liberties. Having feebly sought to draw attention to the matter through a Written Declaration – a form of parliamentary graffiti which is ordinarily promptly whitewashed by the will of the Parliament’s political groups – it is unlikely their concerns will have that much currency in Brussels.

It remains essential, however, that all possible steps are taken to ensure INDECT’s scope remains narrow as possible and that its ultimate application of any technology developed is hugely constrained. It is now crucial that national parliaments in EU Member States now step up to the plate and assert the powers handed to them to block the adoption of INDECT as a day-to-day crime fighting tool. Freedom and privacy depend on it.

Daniel Hamilton is Campaign Director of Big Brother Watch

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