EU Data-Sharing Plans For Crimefighting Draw Privacy Concerns

By Stephen Mbogo | July 7, 2008 | 8:18 PM EDT

Berlin, Germany ( - Plans by the European Union to develop a system that will give law enforcement agencies access to DNA and other personal data of the bloc's citizens are raising privacy concerns but also being welcomed as a critical step in fighting terrorism and other crimes.

"It is an affront on personal privacy," said Peter Hustinx, who holds the title of European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS).

The EDPS, an independent authority devoted to protecting personal data and privacy in the E.U., wants the system to include measures that will specify who will be included in shared DNA databases and the period that this data may be stored by police services.

"Clarifications will ensure a harmonized implementation into national law and guarantee citizens' rights as much as possible," said Hustinx.

He said there had been no time to assess how well the system has helped police work. He is also concerned that the system may allow the processing of information on a person's religion, race or ethnic origin without proper safeguards.

"Some basic rights for data subjects, like the right to be informed, no longer seem to be guaranteed," Hustinx said in a statement.

The E.U. plan includes upgrading the European Police Office (Europol) into a common agency unit that will operate like the Federal Bureau of Investigations in the U.S. This unit will manage the data.

The upgrading of Europol will include empowering it to collect intelligence from commercial sources, like insurance companies, banks and supermarkets. The aim is to minimize the bureaucracy involved in data exchange in cross-border police investigations.

One concern of critics is that information citizens provide to private companies, for reasons not related to security investigation issues, will be used by Europol for crime investigation.

European Commissioner for Justice and Security Franco Frattini told European lawmakers that the proposal will protect E.U.'s citizens' security by ensuring law enforcement authorities have the information they need to do their work. It would, he said, "at the same time protect our citizens' fundamental rights."

The plan, known as the Pruem Treaty, was first adopted by seven nations in 2005 and endorsed by the EU's justice and interior ministers in February this year. All 27 E.U. member states are expected to sign the agreement by June this year, according to German Justice Minister Brigitte Zypries, whose country holds the E.U.'s rotating presidency.

Participating nations' law enforcement agencies will have automatic access to DNA, fingerprints and car registration records.

A draft report prepared for the European Parliament said such data must be obtained by safe and reliable means.

It also said the upgrading of Europol's mandate will empower it to investigate "serious" crimes including terrorism, sex trafficking, child pornography, gun-running and money laundering.

Europol will be able to participate in joint investigations with individual national authorities.

Europol director Max-Peter Ratzel noted that the agency's current mandate is limited to fighting organized crime. In each individual case "we have to demonstrate a link or connection to local structures before we pass on the data."

"We need to move from a need-to-know to a need-to-share basis," Ratzel told the E.U. parliament.

The move comes in the wake of the release of Europol's first annual analysis focused on terrorism, the E.U. Terrorism Situation and Trend Report 2007, which argues that terrorism poses a greater threat than ever to Europe's security.

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