EU: Uncertain future for EU-funded police project aimed at enhancing covert surveillance techniques

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An EU-funded project aimed at enhancing the covert surveillance abilities and techniques of Member States' police forces appears to be in limbo, if not discontinued altogether.

Statewatch reported in August last year on International Specialist Law Enforcement (also known as Project ISLE), which aimed at building "a network of Member State organisations that may develop coordination, cooperation and mutual understanding amongst law enforcement agencies using 'specialist techniques'" - a term which covers covert entry and searching of vehicles and premises, covert forensic capabilities, and the use of covert technical devices. [1]

The first EU-funded phase of the project ran from 2009 to 2012 and was led by the UK's Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA). It emerged from a "pilot seminar consisting of twenty-six 'specialist technique' practitioners" held in London in 2006.

After receiving €116,579 in EU funding for the first three years, SOCA applied for a further €359,244 in 2012, again from the 'Prevention of and Fight Against Crime' programme. However, despite receiving a positive assessment from the European Commission - which agreed to award €286,193 in funding [2] - SOCA subsequently withdrew its application.

A spokesperson for the European Commission's Directorate-General for Home Affairs said that after the positive assessment "the applicant received a notification letter in January 2013" and "a grant agreement was prepared and sent to SOCA in late March."

"However, in April, SOCA notified us that they could not implement the project due to organisational changes and… withdrew [the application]," said the spokesperson.

Despite numerous attempts by Statewatch to find out more, SOCA has refused to answer any questions on the status of the project. It is likely that the "organisational changes" referred to by the Commission relate to SOCA's absorption into the new National Crime Agency (NCA), which was established by the Crime and Courts Act and is due to be "fully operational by December 2013". [3]

According to the Home Office, the NCA will "fight organised crime; strengthen our borders; fight fraud and cyber crime; protect children and young people," and will be made up of four "commands":

  • The organised crime command will work with police forces and other agencies to fight organised crime groups operating across local, national and international borders;
  • The border policing command will make sure that all law enforcement agencies operating in and around the UK's border are working to achieve the same priorities;
  • The economic crime command will provide an innovative and improved capability to deal with fraud and economic crimes, including those carried out by organised criminals;
  • The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre will work with industry, government, children's charities and law enforcement organisations to protect children from sexual abuse and bring offenders to account. [4]

    SOCA's application to the EU shows that the agency was planning to expand significantly on the work done in the first three EU-funded years of the project.

    The 2012 grant application was for €359,244, more than three times the €116,579 awarded to ISLE in 2009. It was also to last two years, rather than the three years for which the first phase of the project ran. The €286,193 eventually awarded by the Commission was an increase of almost 250% on the 2009 figure.

    So what was SOCA planning to do with this money? According to the agency's grant application, a number of activities were planned for the second phase:

  • Involve an increasing number of participating Member States and Organisations within those states;
  • Develop communications between specialist practitioners through Europol EPE [Europol Platform for Experts, an online portal for information exchange];
  • Collate and consolidate existing specialist information;
  • Coordinate the creation and sharing of new information;
  • Enable specialist training with common curricular;
  • Coordinate workshops and exchanges to identify best practice and share knowledge; and
  • Coordinate regular meetings to enhance cooperation and development opportunities. [5]

    Participants would be divided into different work groups, whose needs would be assessed and serve as the basis for activities. These activities were to focus on "developing common practices, and identifying sharing opportunities between Member States, including education opportunities or best practice with a Pan European scope."

    The application also says that "regular meetings of all participants will reinforce established partnerships, create new ones and enable sharing of more sensitive issues."

    The second phase was due to include the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Europol and the Police of Norway as "associated partners", alongside agencies from all of the countries involved in the first EU-funded phase of ISLE:

  • Austria - Federal Ministry of the Interior
  • Belgium - Commissariaat-Generaal Special Units (CGSU)
  • Czech Republic - Gathering Intelligence Unit
  • Finland - National Bureau of Investigation
  • France - GiGN Gendarmerie
  • Germany - Bundeskriminalamt (BKA, Federal Criminal Police Office)
  • Hungary - Special Service for National Security
  • Ireland - An Garda Siochana
  • Italy - Carabinieri (ROS)
  • Netherlands - Korps Landelijke Politie Diensten
  • Norway - Oslo Police District
  • Slovenia - Criminal Police Directorate
  • Spain - Spanish National Police

    It remains to be seen whether the NCA will take up leadership of either ISLE or any similar projects after it becomes operational in December this year. The agency will have SOCA's functions transferred to it - including the Specialist Operations Centre, which is home to the Covert Advice Team [6] - and the legislation establishing the agency allows it to "enter into arrangements for co-operating with other persons (in the United Kingdom or elsewhere)." [7]
    Further reading

  • Parliamentary questions in Germany reveal further information on European police project aimed at enhancing covert investigative techniques, Statewatch News Online, 8 November 2012
  • Another secretive European police working group revealed as governments remain tight-lipped on other police networks and the activities of Mark Kennedy, Statewatch News Online, 23 August 2012

    [1] Another secretive European police working group revealed as governments remain tight-lipped on other police networks and the activities of Mark Kennedy, Statewatch News Online, 23 August 2012
    [2] European Commission, Restricted call for proposals (first deadline), 2012, p.30
    [3] SOCA, National Crime Agency
    [4] National Crime Agency (NCA), Inside Government, 26 March 2013
    [5] European Commission, Restricted call for proposals (first deadline), 2012, p.30-31
    [6] SOCA, Specialist Operations Centre
    [7] Article 1(2), Schedule 3, Crime and Courts Act 2013

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