Lawful interception: German government sets up new surveillance unit at Europol

Germany uses its EU Presidency to reorganise digital surveillance in Europe. A 5G working group temporarily set up by the BKA is now being consolidated at Europol. It is to coordinate the „operational capabilities“ in the Member States and facilitate interception through new legislative proposals.

The German Presidency of the EU Council wants to set up a Europe-wide working group on the interception of telecommunications by police forces and secret services. This emerges from a document put online by the British civil rights organisation Statewatch. The „Permanent Group of the Heads of Interception Units“ is to consist of the departments responsible in several Member States.

With this initiative, the German Government wants to improve the „operational capabilities“ in the Member States. However, a central office for interception of telecommunications located at the European Union is probably not adressed, as this would be contrary to the EU treaties. Europol could, however, take on an intermediary role, as it does in the cross-border tracking of GPS transmitters, and ensure that in cross-border investigations different authorities do not monitor the same telephone lines.

Also Great Britain mentioned as a member

The „Permanent Group of the Heads of Interception Units“ owes its creation to European efforts to tap the fifth generation of mobile phones. For this purpose, the EU interior ministers had established an „5 G Expert Group“ on the initiative of the German Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA). One of the first measures of the group, in which Europol also participated, was the weakening of the former tap-proof standard of 5G. The European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) and the United Nations International Telecommunications Union (ITU) are responsible for this.

The tasks of the interception working group also cover the „legislative domain“. This might refer to the amendment of laws both in the Member States and (then as directives or regulations) at EU level.

The German Federal Ministry of the Interior proposes that the „Permanent Group of the Heads of Interception Departments“ be placed under the authority of the Council Working Group on Law Enforcement (LEWP). Proposals for new measures or techniques would thus be given greater weight, as all EU Member States send representatives to the LEWP. Police authorities from the Schengen states Norway, Switzerland and Iceland would also be involved as „partner countries“. Despite the approaching exit from the EU, Great Britain is also mentioned as a member.

Germany plans declaration

According to the proposal of the German Ministry of the Interior, Europol in The Hague will be entrusted with the coordination of the new initiatives. The police agency is to carry out regular studies and investigate methods for intercepting digital communications, while the EU Commission would provide the necessary funding. The document mentions the „European Centre for Cybercrime Control“ (EC3) as the competent department at Europol. The group would also work closely with the new “ Innovation Laboratory “ at Europol.

There will be no specific legal framework for the „Permanent Group of the Heads of Interception Units“. However, it is to be based on a declaration on the undermining of encrypted communication on the Internet, which the German EU Council Presidency intends to adopt shortly.

Originally, the „Permanent Group of the Heads of Interception Units“ was supposed to meet for the first time next week in Hamburg, but the date was postponed to January due to the Corona pandemic.

Autor: Matthias Monroy

Knowledge worker, activist, editor of the German civil rights journal Bürgerrechte & Polizei/CILIP.