Insight – Irked by U.S., but EU keeps own spy projects quiet

Insight – Irked by U.S., but EU keeps own spy projects quiet

Revelations of U.S. spying in Europe have soured transatlantic relations, prompting a White House apology and, as leak followed leak over the past two years, have fostered feelings of moral superiority among Europeans.

Yet EU governments are stepping up surveillance of their own citizens: last month France, smarting from Islamist attacks in January, passed intrusive laws on the very day it learned U.S. agents tapped French presidents’ phones; this week, the European Parliament gave ground in a fight to block powers to track and share air passenger records among member states.

Less well known still is that the 28-nation European Union itself, as a collective institution, is spending hundreds of millions of euros developing security technologies that civil liberties watchdogs say jeopardise rights to privacy.

“Funding these programmes is not per se problematic,” said Nils Muiznieks, a Latvian who is human rights commissioner for the 47-state Council of Europe, a rights body that is not part of the EU. “It is how the new technologies will be used that poses a series of human rights concerns.”

With concerns growing over Islamist violence even before the attacks in Paris in January, EU spending on security research, at 1.7 billion euros ($1.9 billion) in the bloc’s 7-year budget from 2014, is 20 percent up on the previous period.

EU officials estimate that represents a hefty 40 percent of all such spending by the bloc’s 28 member states, many of which lack capacity to develop such technology themselves. Among top priorities are finding ways to focus mass surveillance of the Internet, email, mobile phones and social networks on suspects.

“Member states do conduct their own research,” said an EU official familiar with such projects who spoke privately as he was not authorised to speak. “But a lot of them like to go through us – it helps keep some of this stuff at arm’s length.”

Most of the research the EU funds, much of it by private firms including from non-European states such as the United States and Israel, is listed in public tender documents, though these are time-consuming to consult. But about a tenth of the spending is set aside for work classified as top secret.

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Camilla Wood

UK based Legal Aid Lawyer

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