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A data ‘black hole’: Europol ordered to delete vast store of personal data | Police

The EU’s police company, Europol, can be compelled to delete a lot of a vast store of personal data that it has been discovered to have amassed unlawfully by the bloc’s data safety watchdog. The unprecedented discovering from the European Data Safety Supervisor (EDPS) targets what privateness specialists are calling a “large data ark” containing billions of factors of info. Delicate data within the ark has been drawn from crime stories, hacked from encrypted cellphone providers and sampled from asylum seekers by no means concerned in any crime.

In accordance to inner paperwork seen by the Guardian, Europol’s cache incorporates at the very least 4 petabytes – equal to 3m CD-Roms or a fifth of the whole contents of the US Library of Congress. Data safety advocates say the quantity of info held on Europol’s methods quantities to mass surveillance and is a step on its street to changing into a European counterpart to the US Nationwide Safety Company (NSA), the organisation whose clandestine on-line spying was revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Among the many quadrillions of bytes held are delicate data on at the very least 1 / 4 of 1,000,000 present or former terror and critical crime suspects and a mess of different folks with whom they got here into contact. It has been gathered from nationwide police authorities during the last six years, in a collection of data dumps from an unknown quantity of prison investigations.

The watchdog ordered Europol to erase data held for greater than six months and gave it a yr to type out what might be lawfully saved.

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The confrontation pits the EU data safety watchdog towards a strong safety company being primed to develop into the centre of machine studying and AI in policing.

The ruling additionally exposes deep political divisions amongst Europe’s decision-makerson the trade-offs between safety and privateness. The eventual end result of their face-off has implications for the long run of privateness in Europe and past.

The European commissioner for home affairs, Ylva Johansson.
The European commissioner for house affairs, Ylva Johansson, has argued that Europol helps nationwide police authorities with the ‘herculean process’ of analysing lawfully transmitted data. {Photograph}: Anadolu Company/Getty Photographs

The EU house affairs commissioner, Ylva Johansson appeared to defend Europol. “Legislation enforcement authorities want the instruments, sources and the time to analyse data that’s lawfully transmitted to them,” she mentioned. “In Europe, Europol is the platform that helps nationwide police authorities with this herculean process.”

The fee says the authorized considerations raised by the EDPS increase “a critical problem” for Europol’s skill to fulfil its duties. Final yr, it proposed sweeping adjustments to the regulation underpinning Europol’s powers. If made regulation, the proposals may in impact retrospectively legalise the data cache and protect its contents as a testing floor for brand spanking new AI and machine studying instruments.

Europol denies any wrongdoing, and mentioned the watchdog could also be decoding the present guidelines in an impractical approach: “[The] Europol regulation was not meant by the legislator as a requirement which is not possible to be met by the data controller [ie Europol] in apply.”

Europol had labored with the EDPS “to discover a stability between preserving the EU safe and its residents protected whereas adhering to the very best requirements of data safety”, the company mentioned.

Based as a coordinating physique for nationwide police forces within the EU and headquartered in The Hague, Europol has been pushed by some member states as an answer to terrorism considerations within the wake of the 2015 Bataclan assaults and inspired to harvest data on a number of fronts.

A view of Europol buildings in The Hague.
Europol buildings in The Hague. {Photograph}: Jerry Lampen/ANP/AFP/Getty Photographs

In principle, Europol is topic to tight regulation over what varieties of personal data it may store and for the way lengthy. Incoming data are meant to be strictly categorised and solely processed or retained once they have potential relevance to high-value work resembling counter-terrorism. However the full contents of what it holds are unknown, partially as a result of of the haphazard approach that EDPS discovered Europol to be treating data.


Only a handful of Europeans have develop into conscious that their very own data is being saved and none is thought to have been in a position to drive disclosure. Frank van der Linde, who was positioned on a terror watchlist in his native Netherlands and later eliminated, is one of the uncommon seen threads in an in any other case unseen mesh.

The political activist, whose solely critical run-ins with police quantity to breaking a window to achieve entrance to a constructing and create a squat for homeless folks, was faraway from the Dutch watchlist by authorities in 2019. However a yr prior to this removing he had moved to Berlin, which unknown to Van der Linde on the time prompted Dutch police to share his data with German counterparts and Europol. The activist found his entanglement with Europol solely when he noticed {a partially} declassified file at Amsterdam metropolis corridor.

To get his personal data faraway from any worldwide databases he turned to Europol. He was shocked when in June 2020 it responded saying it had nothing he was “entitled to have entry to”. The activist took his grievance to the EDPS. “I don’t know in the event that they deleted the data after Dutch authorities up to date them [that] they don’t think about me an extremist … Europol is a black field.”

“The convenience of getting on such a listing is horrific,” Van der Linde mentioned. “It’s surprising how simply police share info over borders, and it’s terrifying how tough it’s to handle to delete your self from these lists.”

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Concerns over Europol’s therapy of delicate data prompted the watchdog to increase its personal questions in 2019. Its preliminary findings in September of that yr confirmed that data units shared with Europol have been saved with out the correct checks to confirm whether or not folks scooped up in them ought to be monitored or their data retained. Entry to the ark is restricted to authorised personnel and so much of its content material has been examined, cleansed and used legally.

When Europol failed to convincingly reply the watchdog’s considerations, the EDPS publicly admonished the police company in September 2020 making clear what was at stake: “Data topics run the danger of wrongfully being linked to a prison exercise throughout the EU, with all of the potential injury for his or her personal and household life, freedom of motion and occupation that this entails.”

The tussle that adopted is captured in a collection of inner paperwork obtained underneath freedom of info legal guidelines. They present Europol stalling for time and the watchdog telling them that they’ve failed to resolve “the authorized breach”. The police company seems to be holding out for brand spanking new EU laws to present retrospective cowl for what it has been doing with out a authorized foundation for six years.

The European Fee’s nervousness over a public conflict was sufficient to pull Monique Pariat, the EU’s director basic for house affairs, into a gathering between the 2 businesses in December 2021. Sources mentioned the watchdog had been inspired to “tone down” its public criticism of Europol.

However the head of EDPS, Wojciech Wiewiórowski, informed the Guardian that the assembly was “the final second for Europol to add some info that wasn’t added of their final replies to our letter”.

Because the assembly did nothing to reply Wiewiórowski’s considerations on lawful retention of data “there was no different approach to remedy the issue, for us” he mentioned, “than to difficulty a call to erase the data which is over six months”.

Niovi Vavoula, a authorized professional at Queen Mary College of London, mentioned: “The brand new laws is definitely an effort to recreation the system. Europol and the fee have been trying an ex-post rectification of illegally retaining data for years. However placing new guidelines in place doesn’t legally resolve beforehand unlawful conduct. This isn’t how the rule of regulation works.”

Consultants’ considerations should not confined to Europol’s flouting of guidelines on data retention. Additionally they see a regulation enforcement company that aspires to conduct mass surveillance operations.

Members of the civil liberties, justice and residential affairs committee of the European parliament throughout a listening to in June 2021 in contrast the company to the NSA. Wiewiórowski shocked attenders by endorsing the comparability in relation to Europol’s apply of retaining data. He identified that Europol was utilizing comparable arguments to these utilized by the NSA to defend bulk data assortment operations and mass surveillance as revealed by Snowden.

“What the NSA mentioned to Europeans after the Prism scandal began was that they don’t seem to be processing the data, they’re simply amassing it and they’re going to course of it solely in case it’s essential for the investigation they’re doing,” Wiewiórowski told MEPs. “That is one thing that doesn’t adjust to the European strategy to processing personal data.”

Eric Topfer, a surveillance professional on the German Institute for Human Rights, has studied the proposed new Europol regulation and mentioned it foresees the company pulling in data straight from banks, airways, non-public corporations and emails. “If Europol will solely have to ask for sure varieties of info to have them served on a silver platter, then we’re shifting nearer to having an NSA-like company.”


The wrestle with EDPS over data storage is the newest proof of Europol favouring technosolutions to safety considerations over privateness rights. Europol’s boss, beforehand Belgium’s high cop, co-wrote an op-ed in July 2021 which argued that the wants of regulation enforcement businesses to extract proof from smartphones ought to trump privateness issues. The article argues for a authorized proper to the keys to all encryption providers.

No point out was made of Pegasus adware revelations that confirmed that many governments, together with some in Europe, have been actively trying to intercept the communications of human rights defenders, journalists and attorneys for whom encryption provides their solely safety.

Europol’s boss, Catherine de Bolle
Europol’s boss, Catherine de Bolle, has argued that the wants of regulation enforcement businesses to extract proof from sensible telephones ought to trump privateness issues. {Photograph}: Sem van der Wal/ANP/AFP/Getty Photographs

In 2020, Europol trumpeted its involvement along with French and Dutch police in hacking the encrypted cellphone service EncroChat, unleashing a torrent of personal data into the ark. When the key operation was revealed by Europol and its judicial counterpart, Eurojust, it was hailed as one of the largest successes in battling organised crime in Europe’s historical past. Within the UK alone, about 2,600 folks have been taken into custody by August 2021 and Nikki Holland, the director of investigations on the UK Nationwide Crime Company, in contrast the hack to “having an inside particular person in each high organised crime group within the nation”.

Europol copied the data extracted from 120m EncroChat messages and tens of hundreds of thousands of name recordings, photos and notes, then parcelled it out to nationwide police forces. The flood of proof of drug trafficking and different offences drowned out qualms concerning the implications of the operation. The hacking operation that turned EncroChat telephones into cellular spies appearing towards their customers has vital similarities with surveillance malware resembling Pegasus.

Attorneys from Germany, France, Sweden, Eire, the UK, Norway and the Netherlands, all representing purchasers caught up within the aftermath, met in Utrecht in November 2021. They discovered that circumstances have been being constructed throughout Europe based mostly on proof of which authorities have been unwilling to reveal the provenance. “Investigators and prosecutors have been hiding or deforming the info,” mentioned the German lawyer Christian Lödden. “All of us agree that these should not one of the best folks on the planet, however what are we prepared to sacrifice so as to convict yet one more particular person?”

Police officers during a raid in a business park in Weißensee, Germany, in October 2021 as part of an investigation into drug trafficking and arms dealing. The raid was triggered by decrypted data from the short message service Encrochat.
Police officers throughout a raid in a enterprise park in Weißensee, Germany, in October 2021 as half of an investigation into drug trafficking and arms dealing. The raid was triggered by decrypted data from the brief message service Encrochat. {Photograph}: Paul Zinken/AP

EncroChat clientele included non-criminals, folks resembling attorneys, journalists and enterprise folks. The Dutch lawyer Haroon Raza was one of them and mentioned he purchased an EncroChat handset at a cellphone store in Rotterdam. He demanded that his data be erased. “So far as I may perceive, a replica nonetheless lies in Europol’s databases the place it may stay ceaselessly.”

French lawyer Robin Binsard is satisfied that the entire operation quantities to mass surveillance. He mentioned: “Dismantling an entire communication system is just like the police looking out all of the flats in a block to discover the proof of against the law: it violates privateness and it’s merely unlawful.”

Since 2016, Europol has additionally been operating a mass screening programme in refugee camps in Italy and Greece, sweeping up data from tens of 1000’s of asylum seekers in search of alleged international fighters and terrorists. In accordance to {a partially} declassified EDPS inspection report obtained underneath freedom of info legal guidelines, “routine checks” by Europol of migrants crossing EU borders “should not allowed” as there may be “no authorized foundation” for such a programme. The screening could have resulted in migrants’ personal data being saved on a prison database regardless of any hyperlinks being discovered to crime or terrorism. Europol has declined to reveal any operational particulars.


Internal paperwork clarify that by spring 2020 Europol was growing its personal machine studying and AI programme, even because the EU data watchdog was snapping at its heels. Discovering itself with a rising cache of data, the company turned to algorithms to make sense of all of it. A month after the data supervisor publicly admonished Europol, the company got here again with a query: if it wished to practice algorithms on the data it had already been admonished for retaining, may it begin the data safety influence evaluation course of for this with out EDPS oversight?

The request makes it clear that the algorithms, which included facial recognition instruments, wouldn’t be designed nor used to retrieve delicate data resembling well being standing, ethnic background, sexual or political orientation, though, as Europol admitted, such data would inevitably be processed by the instruments: “We recognise that the produced outcomes will include delicate data and its processing can be in step with Europol Regulation.”

When the watchdog didn’t present the inexperienced mild, Europol determined in impact to sideline the EDPS and go forward regardless, confirming as a lot in a January 2021 letter.

(L-R) European commissioner for home affairs, Ylva Johansson, executive director of Europol, Catherine De Bolle, the French minister of interior, Gérald Darmanin, German MP Stephan Mayer, and the Belgian minister of interior, Annelies Verlinden, on the sidelines of their meeting to discuss ways of preventing migrants crossing the Channel, in Calais, France, 28 November 2021.
(L-R) European commissioner for house affairs, Ylva Johansson, govt director of Europol, Catherine de Bolle, the French minister of inside, Gérald Darmanin, German MP Stephan Mayer, and the Belgian minister of the inside, Annelies Verlinden, on the sidelines of their assembly to focus on methods of stopping migrants crossing the Channel, in Calais, France on 28 November. {Photograph}: François Lo Presti/EPA

The watchdog responded by saying it could open a proper monitoring process. By the tip of February 2021, Europol pulled the brake on its machine studying programme. Europol informed the Guardian that, to date, it “has not made use of personal machine studying fashions for operational evaluation and has additionally not carried out ‘coaching’ of machine studying.”

However there are clear indicators that the brake can be launched quickly. Europol has already began a recruitment spherical for specialists to assist with the event of AI and data mining.

The rising form of Europol is alarming some MEPs resembling Belgium’s Saskia Bricmont. “Within the identify of the battle towards criminality and terrorism now we have an evolution of an company, which performs crucial missions, however they don’t seem to be executed in the correct method. It will lead to issues,” she mentioned.

Chloé Berthélémy, an professional with the European Digital Rights community of NGOs, mentioned that whereas Europol lags behind the US in phrases of technological capability, it’s on the identical path because the NSA.

“Europol’s capability to hoover up big quantities of data and accumulate it, in what might be known as a giant data ark, after which it’s nearly not possible to know what they’re used for, makes it a black gap.”

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