Amnesty International: Surveillance exploding in Europe

Amnesty International campaigners at a Berlin protest against mass surveillance in 2014

Amnesty International campaigners at a protest against mass surveillance. Berlin, August 2014. [Markus Winkler/Flickr]

There’s a worrying trend towards increased surveillance in Europe, says Amnesty International adviser Tanya O’Carroll.

“What’s happening in Europe is a trend in a very negative direction. Governments are giving themselves vague powers to gather information on everyone, whether you’re a lawyer, a doctor or an NGO,” O’Carroll said, referring to the French law that passed this spring and planned legislation in Switzerland and the Netherlands.

Amnesty International revealed this week that it was targeted for surveillance by British intelligence agency GCHQ. The British investigatory powers tribunal, which oversees allegations of government surveillance, confirmed to the NGO in an email sent Wednesday (1 July) that its communications had been tapped and its data stored beyond the legal time limit.

>>Read: French surveillance legislation is off to a bad start

Following Edward Snowden’s revelations in 2013 about government surveillance programmes, Amnesty International filed a legal complaint with other NGOs against the British government, citing suspicions they’d had their communications intercepted.

In a statement on Wednesday, Amnesty International said it still has no information on what data GCHQ collected or how it was used.

“The information from the tribunal raises more questions than it answers,” O’Carroll said. Amnesty International has requested a parliamentary inquiry into the case.

Salil Shetty, Amnesty’s secretary general, said, “The revelation that the UK government has been spying on Amnesty International highlights the gross inadequacies in the UK’s surveillance legislation.”

Snowden’s disclosures on American and European intelligence activities exposed that GCHQ shares data with US agencies.

>>Read: Data protection talks start ahead of digital focus at EU summit

So-called ‘trialogue’ negotiations on EU data protection reform got started last week between the European Parliament, the Commission and Council. The legislation includes a regulation that addresses companies’ processing of personal data and a directive on police use of data.

But the data reform package, which legislators have vowed to wrap up this year, wouldn’t reign in intelligence agencies’ data collection.

“The data protection package would improve significantly the control of individuals over the processing of their data,” said German MEP Jan Philipp Albrecht (Green), the rapporteur on the reform package.

“But the activity of intelligence agencies is completely exempt from all European rules. This is why there needs to be more activity of the European Commission and the Member States governments to pass at least minimum standards for the work and control of intelligence agencies. It is outrageous that since the revelations of Edward Snowden two years ago, no EU government has acted to end the massive infringement of human rights on privacy and data protection by their national security services.”

There were more details on the reach of government surveillance in Europe that surfaced this week.

Wikileaks published cables at the beginning of the week detailing UK and US intelligence agencies’ monitoring of Germany and France since the 1990s. In another dramatic twist, German magazine Der Spiegel filed a legal complaint today (3 July) over suspicions that its journalists were under surveillance from US agencies.

The European Data Protection Supervisor Giovanni Buttarelli, the EU’s privacy watchdog, does not comment on specific cases in the member states.

Asked about GCHQ’s surveillance of Amnesty International, Buttarelli told EURACTIV, “The principles are the same and are to be respected by national entities and by third countries operating in the EU.”

The European Data Protection Supervisor’s 2014 report, which was published yesterday (2 July), says “concerns about mass surveillance deepened, with the growing realisation of the need to revise and to clarify the parameters for data flows between the EU and its global partners”.

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