German proposal: EU to take over working group on covert observation and surveillance

European police forces are organised in three informal networks for the exchange of information on techniques and methods of clandestine surveillance. The German Presidency wants to merge the structures and establish them with the EU. Europol could be responsible for coordination.

Police tasks include clandestine surveillance, for example to convict suspects of a crime or to prevent the commission of further offences. To this end, the authorities use technical means to listen to the spoken word, to observe with miniaturised cameras or to trace with tracking devices.

To improve covert observation and surveillance, European authorities are joining forces in three networks. Police authorities from Eastern Europe, Finland and Malta are members of the „Surveillance Cooperation Group“ (SCG) founded in Prague in 2017. The countries of the Western Balkans as well as Austria join forces in the „Surveillance Expert Network for Southeast Europe“ (SENSEE). All other EU Member States, the associated Schengen members Norway and Switzerland as well as Europol are organised in the „European Surveillance Group“ (ESG). Great Britain is also still participating in this group.

„Single pan-European surveillance network“

None of the networks belong to the European Union, the German government describes them as „informal“. Within the framework of the German EU Council Presidency, the German Federal Ministry of the Interior is now proposing to merge the structures under the umbrella of the „European Surveillance Group“. This would create „single pan-European surveillance network“ which would standardise techniques and methods of covert surveillance throughout Europe and simplify cross-border surveillance.

By joining efforts, the authorities intend to respond to changing crime phenomena and related new crime modes. According to the proposal, for example, in the area of Islamic terrorism, significant changes „in the scenes and instruments chosen by perpetrators to commit their crimes“ have been identified.

The proposal mentions attacks that are no longer carried out only in groups but also by individuals. For example, trucks are still used to commit terrorist acts. After the attack on the Christmas market at Breitscheidplatz, the Berlin police offered appropriate trainings under the name „Berlin Truck Concept“ as part of the ESG, but nothing is known about the content of these courses.

„Taking over“ of target persons at the border

The German initiative to merge the three networks goes back to the „Assembly of Regional Groups on Covert Observation and Surveillance“ (ARGOS), which Europol organised in The Hague in 2014 and which was attended by authorities from 37 countries. At the time, the German Federal Criminal Police Office was part of the ESG steering group, which was then operating under a different name. Since that time, members of SENSEE and the SCG have been invited to ESG events and exercises.

In the meantime, the EU Commission has approved a second ESG funding application. It will finance training in observations in low light conditions, rural surveillance, handling of different communication systems and the response to „counter surveillance“ or electronic jamming of police actions.

In the first season, 180 officers were trained as multipliers within the ESG. Also, 200 officers from nine countries took part in an ESG exercise. The national units practised tracking and „taking over“ targets across several European national borders.

Central server for GPS trackers

By integrating the ESG into EU structures, the German government also wants to secure the financing of the network. The proposal includes the affiliation of ESG to the Council working group on Law Enforcement. As a member of the ESG, Europol could thus take on a coordination function.

Europol has already led a pilot project on a „European Tracking Solution“ (ETS), in which police forces from Germany and France have also participated. With a tracking gateway installed at Europol, police participants can access the position data of GPS transmitters across borders. The platform will initially be available to twelve „partners“.

Image: Mika Korhonen on Unsplash.

Autor: Matthias Monroy

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