Europol to „disrupt smuggling networks‘ online communications“

To combat terrorism, the EU police agency reports Internet content to providers for removal. These finds are not necessarily punishable. Now the Internet Referral Unit at Europol is to take stronger action against „smuggling networks“.

The police agency Europol is to have more Internet content on „migrant smuggling“ deleted. This is the conclusion of a paper on „Enhancing the response to migrant smuggling networks“ passed by the interior and justice ministers of the European Union last week.

The document is based on Council conclusions of 18 October 2018 calling for more investigations and prosecution of such activities at both national and EU level. However, the „operational set of measures“ now adopted does not have the force of law. Instead, it gathers declarations of intent for operational measures to strengthen existing instruments and create „synergies“.

Migrant Smugling Centre at Europol

The focus is on the European Migrant Smugling Centre (EMSC), which has been based at Europol since 2016 and is intended to support the Member States. A year ago, the EMSC set up a „Information Clearing House on the Smuggling of Migrants“. Its current partners include the EUNAVFORMED military mission, the Frontex border agency and the EUROGENDFOR gendarmerie force. Europol should now use cooperation with EU police and military missions to strengthen cooperation with third countries.

One of the four chapters in the package of measures is devoted to „disrupt smuggling networks‘ online communications“. To this end, the CMigrant Smugling Centre is to work even more closely with the Internet Referral Unit (EU IRU) at Europol. The Office was set up three years ago to remove extremist and terrorist online content. Europol searches the Internet for corresponding postings or user accounts and reports these to the providers. The criminal police offices of the Member States can also inform Europol about incriminated websites. In order to avoid duplication, Europol maintains its own file to manage the reports.

Upload filter with 100,000 files

The found contents are not checked for their punishability, the letter for removal is formally a request and takes place without judicial decision. According to the EU Commissioners for Home Affairs and Migration, Europol has so far reported 77,000 removal requests, in 84% of the cases they were successful. Some large providers already maintain a database with hash values of removed content, which should be detected and deleted when uploaded again. This list currently contains around 100,000 files.

Shortly after the establishment of the Referral Unit at Europol, the European Union extended its competence from „terrorism“ and „extremism“ to „smuggling of migrants“. In 2016, the EU IRU had found 172 accounts or content for this, in 2017 it was already 693. One fifth of these finds are not reported to the companies, partly because the Internet presence is being monitored for further investigations by police or secret services. About 80% of the content reported in the area of „migrant smuggling“ is removed.

„Disrupt the technical infrastructure used by smuggling networks“

With the aim of “ limit the access to online facilitation of illegal immigration, the number of notifications is now to be significantly increased. The set of measures against „migrant smuggling“ also calls to „disrupt the technical infrastructure used by smuggling networks“. This probably refers to messenger services in whose groups providers of escape aid and migrants come together.

Elsewhere, there is talk of capturing the „digital footprint of organised crime groups“. The formulations thus go beyond the mere observation of the Internet, but the document does not become more concrete. It is known that Europol is currently developing decryption capabilities and should support the Member States in the use of Trojan programmes.

Frontex to provide leads

Particular mention is made of closer cooperation with other actors in the field of justice and home affairs, including the Asylum Support Office (EASO) and Frontex. For example, they are to transmit „operational leads“ to Europol when websites or chat groups of escape workers become known during interviews with asylum seekers. The two EU agencies are also invited to provide strategic analyses.

The EMSC is to adopt the concept of joint „action days“ from the Internet Reporting Office. Europol has already organised at least 12 such „action days“ on „terrorism“ and „extremism“, the most recent of which was the Telegram messenger service.

Cooperation with the EU Internet Forum

In addition, the issue of „migrants smuggling“ should also be taken into account in the fight against other forms of crime. In the area of cybercrime, for example, investigators could follow the “ online provision of illicit goods and services related to the facilitation of illegal immigration including on the Darknet“.

Finally, Europol should carry out campaigns against „migrant smuggling“ on the Internet. To this end, the Council calls for increased cooperation between the EU-IRU and „online service providers, „social media companies“ and „all types of hosting service providers“. This includes the EU Internet Forum, which recently convened for its annual meeting in Brussels. It currently comprises at least 16 companies and is expected to grow further.

Image: European Council (Screenshot).