Europe under surveillance

More safety but less privacy for its citizens. The risks of mass surveillance and the doubts about its effectiveness against terrorism.

Where does the right balance lie between security and privacy? In the aftermath of the January attacks in Paris, political institutions are responding to the fear of further jihadist actions by raising security levels.

With Islam-inspired terrorism increasingly perceived as a growing threat within European borders, governments have replied unanimously: greater powers of surveillance are needed. France, Great Britain, Germany and Italy are all preparing to introduce new anti-terrorism measures.

However, the privacy of European citizens could soon be seriously curtailed. And the effectiveness of such mass surveillance campaigns is by no means a foregone conclusion. 

The data amassed by Europol, as explained by Director Rob Wainwright, shows that between 3,000 and 5,000 European citizens are currently fighting alongside the jihadists in Syria and Iraq. “We’re dealing with a large body of mainly young men who have the potential to come back and have the potential or intent and capability to carry W out the attacks we have seen in Paris”, said Wainwright, who also emphasises the fundamental role of the internet in disseminating the jihadist message. In fact, control over the web has for some time now been one of the main fields of activity of many government intelligence agencies.

France already had a robust law against terrorism when the French parliament ratified a new package of anti-jihadist measures in November 2014. None of these measures, however, was able to prevent the January attacks on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and the kosher supermarket. The measures of the new law include limiting the movement of suspected jihadists in Europe and granting full powers to the authorities to block suspicious websites that publish terrorist vindications or provide specific instructions on how to plan and execute attacks.

Moreover, the legislation has introduced a very particular new item that refers to an “individual terrorist enterprise”, which is directed at combating isolated cells that might only have one member and are completely detached from any international networks.

The points of the new French anti-jihadist legislative road map presented at the beginning of 2015 by Prime Minister Manuel Valls include bolstering intelligence services; monitoring prisons and assigning specific areas by the end of the year to house inmates suspected of radical tendencies; creating a new file for those who have already been convicted of terrorism, so that they may be checked out on a regular basis; instating a European system to collect data on all passengers travelling within EU borders; and strengthening the measures designed to monitor the internet and particularly social networks.

Germany, on the other hand, debated a law in February that aims to restrict the possibility for suspected future fighters to leave the country. The new law would give German authorities the right not only to prevent subjects flagged by the intelligence services from leaving the country but also to trace and block any ambiguous cash flows.

Chancellor Angela Merkel is furthermore exerting pressure to ensure that the EU approve a new law that would allow a very thorough collection of personal data, a measure that was already repealed by the European Court of Justice last year. The Court ruled that the European directive on mass surveillance (approved in 2006) does not comply with the parameters of European rights as it “interferes in a particularly serious manner with the fundamental rights to respect of private life and to the protection of personal data”.

This directive, which enabled communication companies to preserve the personal data of all European citizens for a variable period of between six and 24 months, is still valid in France. Nevertheless, this comprehensive control over privacy did not prevent January's murderous attack.

In spite of the dubious success of the extensive surveillance campaign, even Great Britain is trying to rush a bill through parliament to limit personal privacy by waiving the (supposed) security threat.

Prime Minister David Cameron has stated that the British intelligence agencies must soon have the legal power to intercept communications throughout the nation. This would mean that, if Cameron is re-elected and these new regulations are enforced, there would no longer be any hidden encrypted data and potentially all calls and online communication of suspected terrorists could be intercepted. Services such as Whatsapp could therefore be constantly monitored.

As far as security is concerned, Italy is in line with its European neighbours. The government is in favour of the French idea of a European directive that might enable shared access to all traveller lists via Passenger Name Records (PNRs). The Ministry of Interior also intends to target internet sites and social networks. According to Interior Minister Angelino Alfano, “The balance between privacy and security has to change in accordance with the historical context. We have to find a new point of equilibrium”. He went on to add: “We could, for example, table a discussion about how long the data may be stored”.

Such measures are based on a vague definition of “suspected terrorists” and are not clear as to how normal citizens may protect themselves from such thorough supervision of all communication. As Jean Lambert, a British member of the European Parliament, points out in an editorial on openDemocracy, Europe cannot ignore Article 8 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, which stipulates: “Everyone has the right to the protection of personal data concerning him or her. Such data must be processed fairly for specified purposes and on the basis of the consent of the person concerned or some other legitimate basis laid down by law”. The fact remains that this is a very treacherous landscape where fear immediately triggers calls for national security, in the name of which even the European Convention on Human Rights envisages many exceptions. 


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