When Europe builds its own security vision – others will join

NUJ Brussels“We need a vision of security that is rule-of-law based and human-rights based – if we can build that vision, then I think a lot of people would want to join.” That was Green MEP Jan Philipp Albrecht, in his address to members of the Brussels branch of the NUJ in the Brussels Press Club on 10th June 2014.

Albrecht was explaining his view on continuing concerns across Europe about the power of the national security services, and their ability to monitor, track and spy on individuals without justification or oversight. As a consequence he believes that Europe, and in particular the incoming European Parliament in 2014, needs to come up with a positive way forward of balancing security needs against individual civil liberties, and to develop at EU-level an approach to oversight of the security services based upon fundamental legal principles.

That Europe’s citizens are frequently spied upon without justification is not in doubt. Edward Snowden’s leaks and the avalanche of revelations in the press have shown the extent of digital surveillance that takes place today, and the way those abilities have advanced far beyond civil oversight and even the ability of the judiciary to understand their use.

Combine these advances with irresponsible manipulation of the political executive by a self-serving security elite, and you have a government service that has the ability to play God with people’s lives, and little comeback should it go too far.

However Albrecht was emphatic in his insistence that criticism is not enough. While many condemn America’s National Security Agency for delivering such capabilities to European security services, he said that simply criticising the NSA is pointless when Europe’s own national-security agencies are carrying out the same activities with a similar lack of oversight. “GCHQ does exactly the same as the NSA, as does Germany’s BND. Both do foreign signals intelligence, and both consider the internet to be the domain of foreign affairs,” he said.

While recognising that responsibility for Europe’s security services rested at the national level, he remarked on the notable lack of any motivation on the part of those governments to carry out investigations of their own security agencies. Consequently, he pointed out, they are hardly likely to drive any such activity at European level [Ed. for example in the European Council], and it is therefore up to the European Parliament to push for any initiative in this area.

To a question about the need of journalists to protect their sources, he said that he recognised the problem, and the fact that at present investigative journalists are having to take extraordinary precautions to protect the anonymity of contacts [including going completely off grid]. However, he insisted, the Parliament needs to take a long-term view. “Solutions to a journalistic need to protect sources cannot just be technical, they also have to be political and legal.”

On the present ‘Safe Harbour’ arrangement for data protection between the EU and the US, he said that many US companies see the arrangement as a “blank cheque” in terms of complying with EU data protection legislation; one that allows them to do whatever they like. However this is not so, he said, as the recent Google judgement in the European Court of Justice has shown. “In the European Parliament,” he said, “we have to scrap this arrangement, and to start negotiating to replace Safe Harbour with an agreement in which European concerns are listened to.”

It is a basic principle of data protection, he said, that governments need to have a valid reason to process personal data about their citizens. “If it is for law-enforcement purposes, then the amount of data and its depth needs to be proportionate.”

“One of the key reasons why Europe holds the junior position in US/EU relations in this area is that we don’t have a vision of what we want to build,” he said, concluding, “build that vision, and people will come.”

© Philip Hunt, 2014.

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