EU Justice Commissioner Reding wants an EU spy agency. Has she lost her mind or her morals?

gchq-kelseyBy Simon Davies

Europe’s justice commissioner Viviane Reding last week threw her weight behind the creation of an EU-wide intelligence service. This idea is being viewed as either a political ploy to irritate American security chiefs, or – at the other extreme – one of the most dangerous notions to have emerged from Brussels in a decade.

Viviane Reding: More spying, not less

Viviane Reding: More spying, not less

“When you have rather smaller intelligence services of the different member states, you really do not have a counterweight and that is why have I proposed it in the future,” she noted.

Senior EU Commission officials have reportedly dismissed the proposal, arguing that the larger member states would oppose such a measure. The problem however is that those very countries could well have much to gain from the creation of another intelligence entity – one over which they might exercise considerable control.

The absence of detail in Reding’s proposal suggests that she may be playing political games with the US, but the dearth of media commentary about her comments could signal to data-hungry EU security chiefs that an opportunity exists to engineer another layer of surveillance.

The EU already has a multi-national intelligence gathering operation in the guise of the UK

Having already gutted the current data protection proposals in the proposed Regulation, the Council – representing EU governments – could well see an advantage in backing a regional intelligence apparatus. There may even be political capital in doing so. And of course a clever government – seeing the opportunity to have sway over a new spying operation – could use this weakened data protection regime as a legal justification for such an initiative.

However Reding’s proposal ignores one vast reality: the EU already has a multi-national intelligence gathering operation in the guise of the UK. A network of spy stations and cable interception points already exists throughout much of Western Europe, lacing through a web of UK interception stations such as Menwith Hill and Bude. These operate in partnership with the NSA.

While this network exists there is little point to Reding’s “counterweight”. She has been unable – or unwilling – to tackle the UK over its clandestine spying arrangements with the US. Unless those trans-Atlantic agreements are broken up it would be dangerous to establish yet another agency that in the end would have to build a sharing arrangement with these existing networks.

Of course from the perspective of either privacy or technology discussion of such aspects is rather hollow. There is already a vast carve-out for security throughout all EU laws and communication is now global. Any move toward an EU spying apparatus can have only a negative effect on both.