EU crime agency Europol is set to gain greater data collection powers despite concerns over the surveillance of innocent people caught up in criminal investigations.
Under a deal struck on Tuesday night between member states and the European Parliament, Europol will be allowed to receive data directly from web platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.
This could include material posted by terrorists with the aim of recruiting volunteers, planning attacks and disseminating propaganda.
Europol agents have looked over millions of messages in some investigations, but previously relied on such data being forwarded to them by national law enforcement agencies.
A draft EU regulation says the overhaul is necessary because it is too time-consuming for national governments to sift through data and they will not have the full Europe-wide picture.
The reforms “will give Europol the right tools and safeguards to support police forces in analysing big data”, said Margaritis Schinas, the EU commissioner responsible for security.
Critics said the move would retroactively legalise data-gathering practices that were faulted by the EU’s data protection watchdog.
Europol was admonished by that office in 2020 for storing large volumes of data on people who were not suspected of any crime.
Under the new rules, Europol will have 18 months to pick out the suspicious elements in large datasets, and could apply to extend this to three years.
It said a six-month cut-off mandated by the data watchdog in a recent ruling was not enough for some of its investigations.
Wojciech Wiewiorowski, the European data protection supervisor, said the reforms disregarded his office’s work.
'Threat to privacy'
The proposals mean that “the processing of very large datasets would be very broadly allowed, without providing sufficient safeguards”, he said.
European Digital Rights, a lobby group, said the reform “goes against the EU’s founding values and rights protection principles, threatening everyone’s privacy and freedom”.
“Giving law enforcement bodies such capabilities will facilitate the mass surveillance of populations,” it said.
One recent investigation claimed that Europol had collected data from tens of thousands of asylum seekers in Greek and Italian camps to search for foreign terrorist fighters.
A letter to the European Commission last week by 23 civil society groups said the reforms would open the door to racial profiling and have a “disproportionate effect on marginalised communities”.
The European Commission said the data watchdog would have greater powers to scrutinise Europol as part of the reform package.
In other reforms, Europol will be able to tell EU members to share information on foreign terrorist fighters and enter it on a Europe-wide database.
This means border police at the entrance to the visa-free Schengen area would be able to call up this information, the commission said.
The package will have to be formally adopted by the EU’s 27 member states before it takes effect.