Greetings from Brussels!
Following the Paris attacks in mid-November, Europe’s capitals have seen an increase in visible security on its streets. This has been particularly noticeable in Brussels, not only as the capital of Belgium but also as the capital of Europe; armed soldiers and armored vehicles remain a common sight in spite of the terror risk level corresponding to a "serious and imminent attack" being lowered late last week. Brussels as well as the rest of the country remains on high alert. Many of the city’s events were affected by the security concern, including our very own IAPP European Data Protection Congress, which we duly had to take the difficult but necessary decision to cancel.
European authorities should be worried about security. A recent European Parliament (EP) draft report claims that there could be more than 5,000 Europeans who have now joined terrorist groups fighting in Iraq and Syria. MEPs voted overwhelmingly in favor of the report, which proposes new measures to prevent EU citizens being radicalized and joining terror movements. The report calls for tighter, more coordinated border controls and intelligence to be shared between Member States. The report also refers to long-term goals such as educating minors to the threats of online propaganda and improving the social prospects and integration of minority groups. There seems to be a shift in the EP’s collective opinion in favor of pro-security measures. Since the EP cannot initiate legislation itself, the resolution carries no legal weight. It does, however, send a strong signal to the European Commission to tackle some of the systemic causes of terrorism.
The report also reiterated Parliament's intention to end its resistance to more sharing of airline passenger data, known as PNR (Passenger Name Records); there has been criticism of the EU legislature, where the PNR legislation has been held up over concerns for privacy. The debate has become more vocal, centered unequivocally on public protection of the individual right to privacy. This renewed focus appears to have rallied political leaders to finish legislation to track airline passengers within the European Union and abroad. Three-way negotiations between European Parliament, Council and Commission continued Wednesday, with the final scheduled meeting on the 15th of December.
Reaching an agreement, however, is complicated because of a European Court of Justice ruling in April last year that struck down the EU Data Retention Directive. That law covered customer information held by telecommunications firms, but many insist the ruling should apply to passenger name records; very different scenarios one might argue. The dilemma on how to best confront terrorism in Europe in many respects is all too familiar, and perhaps a case of déjà vu, echoing the situation in 2001 that led the U.S. to enact the PATRIOT Act surveillance powers. This debate could certainly thwart current efforts to reform spying laws in Europe. There are lessons to be learned from the U.S. Moreover, it is interesting to note that a number of Member States are already fully engaged in national surveillance reform exercises in one form or another, with favorable public opinion on their side. Policymakers as well as European citizens would do well to remain mindful of two things. Firstly, even in the event of surveillance agreements and cooperation, they will not guarantee us more security tomorrow. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, any enactments as a response to the recent attacks will most likely remain in place for years to come, possibly even decades.
An interested party I spoke to this week was reminded of Europe in the middle ages, a dark era of insecurity and fear for many. The overriding question of sorts is whether we can expect a renaissance. As security and privacy converge with increasing proportion it is important to invest in our public protection while protecting privacy. Both areas remain essential in maintaining social order and our democratic values. If we do not take the necessary actions today, these issues will only become more challenging tomorrow.
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