Cryptowars and migration: Great Britain continues to influence EU policy

The British exit from the European Union strengthens cooperation in informal circles. One of these questionable alliances is now launching measures to decrypt secure communications. This also involves the US government.

With Brexit, the UK has left the „European area of Freedom, Security and Justice“. From the EU’s point of view, the Kingdom became a third country, which can still participate in various measures of the Schengen states via a „Trade and Cooperation Agreement“. However, the government no longer has any say at EU level.

Nevertheless, according to a statement by the British Home Office, the country remains part of the „G6 Group“, in which the interior ministers of the six most populous EU member states have organised themselves for 18 years. The agenda of the most recent meeting at the end of March included the prevention of immigration. Home Secretary Priti Patel presented „landmark changes“ to the British asylum system. By „intelligence and expertise“, the Kingdom’s authorities wanted to „tackle illegal migration across the continent“.

„Targeted preparation“ for EU decision-making processes

The „G6“ is an informal network without any connection to the European Union. According to the German government, the first meeting took place in 2003 with the interior ministries of Germany, France, Great Britain, Italy and Spain, at that time still as „G5“. After its accession to the EU, Poland has also participated since 2006 in the association. Together, the participating countries represent about half of the EU population. The EU Commission also participates in the two-day conferences.

The chair of the group changes every six months, currently this responsibility lies with Great Britain. These tasks include preparing upcoming meetings and determining the topics to be discussed there.

The original reason for setting up the „G6“ was to influence upcoming legislative projects of the European Union. This is also confirmed by the German government, which says that the networking was intended to „make the decision-making processes in the EU Council of Ministers more efficient through targeted preparation“. Therefore, the police agency Europol, the border agency Frontex or the police organisation Interpol are also invited to the conferences if necessary.

With the Lisbon Treaty, the official purpose of the „G6“ since 2009 is no longer Council preparation, henceforth there were also no more working groups and conclusions. The purpose of the meetings was now „exchange on strategy and policy issues“. According to the German government, this informal format should „enable a free exchange of ideas in a small circle“. In particular, topics would be dealt with „where there is not yet an immediate need for decision“.

„Online harms“

Since 2007, the US Department of Homeland Security has also been invited in the „G6+1“ format, and the joint EU-US talks usually take place on the second day of the meeting. For the purpose of the US involvement, the German government notes the „conviction“ that international threats, especially from terrorism, should be countered by „transatlantic cooperation“. On the agenda in recent years, therefore, were pending EU-US agreements, including on the sharing of data on air passengers, financial transactions or „foreign fighters“ detected during military operations. Other topics were the exchange of „electronic evidence“, for which the European Union is planning a supplementary agreement with the US government after adopting its own directive. A similar agreement is being negotiated at the level of the Council of Europe, in which all EU member states as well as the USA are involved.

Earlier „G6“ meetings with the USA were also prompted by measures against „cybercrime“. The interior ministers of the EU member states and Great Britain have now once again consulted with the US government on the matter. According to the British Home Office, the agenda at the virtual meeting a fortnight ago included „online harms“. According to the Home Office, the participants discussed the „issues caused by end to end encryption“.

Presumably, the recent push by the EU Commission to force providers of messenger services to cooperate in the fight against sexual abuse and exploitation of children was discussed. A method proposed by the EU Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson, would force companies to screen file attachments. This would involve comparing the data with hash values of already known videos or images showing child sexual abuse. The Commission has launched a public consultation on this idea until mid of April.

According to the British Home Office, there is now „greater coordination and a global response“ with the USA within the framework of the „G6“. This does not only concern the fight against sexual exploitation of children, but also terrorism. In a similarly far-reaching move, the „Five Eyes“ states of the USA, Canada, Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand, with Japan and India, had already called for state access to end-to-end encryption, citing violent crime, terrorist propaganda and attacks as threats.

Brexit strengthens intelligence cooperation

The continued EU cooperation with the UK in the „G6“ framework proves that Brexit further strengthens informal networks of individual governments. For example, the UK remains a member of the Police Working Group on Terrorism (PWGT), which brings together state security departments from all EU member states as well as Norway, Iceland and Switzerland. The PWGT is also an informal association and does not belong to the EU.

The British government, however, is likely to focus primarily on closer secret service cooperation. Apart from the „Five Eyes“, this probably concerns the European „Bern Club“ and its „Counter Terrorism Group“ (CTG), in which the British domestic service MI5 participates. The CTG is increasingly cooperating with Europol, where the Kingdom is also only allowed to participate in a detoured way after Brexit.

Possibly the fight against encrypted communication is one of the first visible successes of this questionable cooperation with the UK. After the informal circles of the „G6“ and the „Five Eyes“, the topic will be addressed next week at the regular official EU-US meeting of senior officials. Under the agenda item „Challenges related to encryption and lawful interception“, the current Slovenian EU Presidency will present the Council resolution on decryption adopted in December under the German Presidency.

Building on an initiative from 2019, concrete arrangements could be made at the upcoming EU-US ministerial meeting in June this year.

Autor: Matthias Monroy

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