EU
New transnational undercover policing structure cloaked in secrecy
3.8.2015


In November 2014 Europol, the EU's policing agency, hosted a "Covert Surveillance Conference" entitled "Meeting the Challenges to Surveillance across Europe". It was attended by all 28 EU Member States and numerous other countries but, like almost all detail about the conference, their identity has been shielded from public view by Europol. Issues discussed included "Recruiting the Best Profiles" and "Advantages of Interagency Surveillance & Management".

The conference was made up of two meetings: on 26 November, of the Cross-Border Surveillance Working Group (CSW), and on 27 and 28 November, the first meeting of the Assembly of Regional Groups on Surveillance (ARGOS). [1]

The German government said earlier this year in response to parliamentary questions that the purpose of the meetings was "to enable the various mobile special mission units to exchange experiences and, building on this, the optimisation of cooperation during cross-border surveillance operations." [2]

Previous questions in the Bundestag led the German government to reveal that, as of May 2012, the CSW was made up of thirteen states (Germany, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland, the UK) and Europol, whose representative contributes "Europol's technical perspective." [3]

Another "regional group on surveillance" was present alongside the CSW: the Surveillance Expert Network for Southeast Europe or SENSEE. This is made up of signatory states to the Police Cooperation Convention for Southeast Europe (PCC SEE): Albania, Austria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Hungary, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia and Slovenia. In June 2014 the PCC SEE and Europol signed an agreement foreseeing cooperation on a range of issues including "cross-border surveillance". [4]

It is unclear whether the additional states present for the inaugural ARGOS meeting also participated in the CSW meeting. However, on the opening day of the ARGOS conference, the first agenda item was a discussion on the CSW and SENSEE: "View on Way Forward & Upcoming Actions".

A brief information note on what appears to be the most recent meeting of SENSEE, held in Budapest in February 2015, also appears to demonstrate the increasing convergence of Europe's undercover policing groups. It was attended "by members of the SENSEE, representatives from EUROPOL and, for the first time, the representative of the Covert Surveillance Working Group." [5]

Following the CSW/SENSEE discussion, the rest of the morning was taken up with sessions on "Recruiting the Best Profiles", dealing in particular with "Inclusion" and "Diversity". After a long lunch, participants discussed the potential impact of the European Investigation Order on cross-border operations and the "State of Play & Way Forward" with the European Tracking Solution (ETS). The European Investigation Order was adopted in March 2014 and includes rules on cross-border covert investigations. [6]

The first day of the conference ended with discussions on "Case Studies SENSEE"; "Membership Update & New Features" related to the European Platform for Experts, a Europol-hosted web tool for exchanging and sharing information amongst law enforcement authorities; and a €1,500 dinner.

On 28 November, the second day of the ARGOS conference, participants discussed:

  • the Europol Liaison Officers' Working Group on Controlled Delivery";
  • the "1st PCCSEE [Police Cooperation Convention for South-Eastern Europe] Region-Wide Cross-border Exercise Feedback & findings Surveillance Cooperation"; and
  • "Advantages of Interagency Surveillance & Management".

Also on the agenda was the European Network of Law Enforcement Technology Services (ENLETS), which has an interest in the joint procurement by national police forces of automatic number plate recognition systems, open source intelligence, video surveillance and tools for remotely stopping vehicles, amongst other things. In January 2015 the European Commission awarded ENLETS a €500,000 grant for the year. [7]

The European Tracking Solution: "monitoring or recording the geographical location or movement of a subject"

Discussions on a "European Tracking Solution", one of the topics at the ARGOS conference, go back some way. Europol's 2012 work programme described the ETS as "an interoperability mechanism for carrying out surveillance by monitoring or recording the geographical location or movement of a subject." [8]

There is also mention of a "European tracking solution" in a January 2012 Council document on "possible future user requirements for Europol". As part of preparations for the new Europol Regulation (currently being discussed in secret "trilogues" between the Commission, Council and Parliament), the then-Danish Presidency of the Council sought comments from two secretive Council working groups, the JHA Counsellors and the COSI [Committee on operational cooperation on internal security] Support Group.

The Danish Presidency made some suggestions for enhancing the agency's powers, including:

"Where a common investment in a special technology could be beneficial instead of having different national investments in different technologies, Europol could develop such specialised techniques and technologies to be put at the disposal of Member States. One example of this could be a pan-European tracking system which would be administered by Europol and used by the Member States." [9]

It was also included in the agency's 2015 work programme in a list of "possible areas of ICT development in 2015, with a focus on supporting the future Europol Regulation":

"Development of real-time information exchange capabilities to support the European Tracking System, where Europol will host a central gateway capable of receiving the Member States and Third Parties tracking devices' output data in a standardised format and making the standardised output data available for immediate operational use at the designated receiver's end in real time." [10]

Cloak of secrecy

Following a request from Statewatch to Europol for access to documents concerning the conference, the policing agency agreed to release a censored copy of the agenda (drawn up by department 014, 'Special Tactics', and a copy of a document outlining the costs.

Although the ARGOS conference officially took place on 27 and 28 November, Europol's breakdown of costs covers "26-28 November 2014", which would include the CSW meeting as well. The agency spent a total of €13,323 on accommodation for participants (€10,703), travel costs for guest speakers (€1,143) and an official dinner (€1,475). [11]

Europol's original response argued that the conference report and the censored parts of the conference agenda:

"[C]ontain personal data and information of sensitive nature intended for internal use only expressing Europol's position and observations on the effectiveness, functioning and potential future developments of the expert working group. The disclosure of such information would risk undermining Europol partners' trust and endanger mutual cooperation, which is essential to Europol's activities, and consequently hindering Europol's ability to effectively perform its tasks."

Statewatch subsequently filed an appeal that argued against a number of the grounds used by Europol to justify non-disclosure and seeking more information, including for consideration of the partial or full release of a report drawn up by Europol after the conference.

At the end of July Europol responded:

"[T]he Director, as the foreseen authority to decide upon confirmatory applications, having carefully taken into account your written submissions, finds no grounds to deviate from Europol's original assessment as expressed in the reply of 1 June 2015."

That original assessment came to the conclusion that much of the information sought could not be released, on the grounds of "the protection of the public interest as regards the proper fulfilment of Europol's tasks and international relations as well as Europol's decision-making process and/or, the privacy and integrity of the individual."

In the UK, calls have recently been made by German MP Andrej Hunko and campaigners for cross-border undercover police operations to be included in the remit of a new official inquiry that will "report on undercover police operations conducted by English and Welsh police forces in England and Wales since 1968." [11] Exposing the development of and ongoing secrecy over pan-European undercover policing structures to some sunlight would go some way to meeting those calls.


Further reading


Footnotes

[1] Europol, 'AGENDA Covert Surveillance Conference', 13 October 2014
[2] 'New information on undercover policing networks obtained by German parliamentary deputies', Statewatch News Online, February 2015
[3] German Bundestag, 'Answer of the Federal Government to the Minor Interpellation tabled by the Members of the Bundestag Andrej Hunko, Jan Korte, Christine Buchholz, other Members of the Bundestag and the Left Party parliamentary group', 31 May 2012, in English and in German
[4] Europol press release, 'Europol and the Police Cooperation Convention for Southeast Europe sign a letter of intent', 26 June 2014
[5] PCCSEE Secretariat, '4th Meeting of the TWG on Surveillance Expert Network for Southeast Europe (SENSEE)', 2 March 2015
[6] Council of the European Union, 'Council adopts the "European Investigation Order" directive', press release, 14 March 2014; European Investigation Order
[7] 'EU funding for network developing surveillance, intelligence-gathering and remote vehicle stopping tools', Statewatch News Online, January 2015
[8] Europol, 'Work Programme 2012', 9 August 2011
[9] Danish Presidency of the Council of the EU, 'Debate on possible future user requirements for Europol', 5778/12, 26 January 2012
[10] Europol, 'Work Programme 2015', 31 December 2014
[11] Europol, 'Argos conference 26-28 Nov 2014 Breakdown of costs', made public 26 May 2015
[12] Theresa May, 'House of Commons: Written Statement (HCWS115)', 16 July 2015

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