Friday March 26,2010
By Mary Reynolds
MILLIONS of Britons face being snooped on by a new European intelligence agency which has been handed frightening powers to pry into our lives.
Europol can access personal information on anyone – including their political opinions and sexual preferences – if it suspects, rightly or wrongly, that they may be involved in any “preparatory act” which could lead to criminal activity.
The vagueness of the Hague-based force’s remit sparked furious protests yesterday with critics warning that the EU snoopers threaten our right to free speech.
It is understood the agency will concentrate on anyone thought “xenophobic” or likely to commit a crime involving the environment, computers or motor vehicles.
This could include covert monitoring of people who deny the existence of climate change or speak out on controversial issues.
Paul Nuttall, chairman of the UK Independence Party, said: “I am horrified. We thought Gordon Brown’s Big Brother state was bad enough but at least we are going to kick him out in May. These guys we cannot sack until we leave the EU.”
James Welch, legal director of campaign group Liberty, said: “We have huge concerns that Europol appears to have been given powers to hold very sensitive information and to investigate matters that aren’t even crimes in this country. Any extension of police powers at any level needs to be properly debated and scrutinised.”
Until January 1, Europol was a police office funded by various states to help tackle international organised crime. But it has been reborn as the official criminal intelligence-gathering arm of the EU and Brussels has vastly increased its powers.
It can now target more than simply organised crime and the burden of proof required to begin monitoring an individual has been downgraded.
Europol has also been absorbed into the EU superstructure, so it will be centrally funded, sweeping away a key check on its independence.
Campaigners last night expressed concern over the vague list of “serious crimes” which the agency can help investigate, which include racism and xenophobia, environmental crime and corruption. Among personal details that can be gathered and stored are “behavioural data” including “lifestyle and routine; movements; places frequented”, tax position and profiles of DNA and voice.
Where relevant, Europol will also be able to keep data on a person’s “political opinions, religious or philosophical beliefs or trade union membership and data concerning health or sex life”.
Sean Gabb, director of the Libertarian Alliance, warned that it threatened our right to free speech.
“It doesn’t surprise me that Europol has been handed these rather frightening powers,” he said. “We now live in a pan-European state so it was to be expected that it would have a federal police force with powers over us.
“There is a real danger that opposition to EU policies could make an individual liable to arrest.
“For example, if Brussels adopts a hard-line stance on climate change, it’s conceivable that someone who broadcasts their scepticism of climate change may be accused of committing an environmental crime because they have undermined the EU’s efforts to save mankind.”
Timothy Kirkhope, Conservative leader in the European Parliament, said: “Europol’s new mandate has significantly expanded its powers.
“There is a real chance that the vague mandate will enable it to gradually extend its areas of intervention even further.”
The Home Office insisted the changes were in Britain’s interests.
A spokesman said: “Europol is now in a much stronger position to better support our fight against serious and organised crime and terrorism.”