At last enhanced data sharing in Europe

shutterstock_173389235_information_sharing (2)As the dust settles after the Brussels attacks, it seems that Europe may at last be stirring itself into some sort of coordinated counter-terrorism cooperation, especially in terms of data sharing.

While previous terrorist attacks produced noble sentiments and noises of solidarity, they prompted little meaningful in terms of a coordinated approach. Madrid (2004), London (2005), Paris (2015) and Brussels (2016) have left a bloody legacy over a decade long, but have not resulted in many pan-European anti-terrorism measures. The EU has been talking about sharing intelligence since 1999, but a culture of mistrust among national intelligence services was left unchallenged and has long hampered cooperation.

EU member states have again underlined the need to combine national efforts in investigations, increase information sharing and continue to develop preventive measures to detect radicalisation. But this time it may be more than just rhetoric. Europol, Frontex and Eurojust now plan to share information and coordinate operations. EU justice and interior ministers have decided to set up a team of national counter terrorism experts within Europol. They’ve also called for greater police powers over digital evidence gathering. The Passenger Name Registry (PNR) is now a top priority: voted in Council in December, it is expected to be adopted by the European Parliament in this month (April 2016). The system will allow EU member states to collect air travel data to help identify potential terrorist movement. The electronic data produced should also enable faster data exchange among member states.

Europol Director Rob Wainwright has said that the EU needs laws to tackle encrypted internet and smartphone terrorist communication. Some member states are already working on this issue. To take just one such example, the Belgian government was already planning to give broader power to intelligence agencies and prosecutors to eavesdrop on suspected extremist groups’ online and cross-border communications. In January it also introduced a bill to strengthen data collection in criminal and terrorism cases. After the Brussels attacks, public authorities have no excuse for not implementing these measures. Equally those other EU countries lagging behind should urgently follow suit.

The EU has long needed enhanced coordination and better data sharing among its member states to prevent terrorist attacks. The response to Madrid and London was underwhelming in this regard.  Paris and Brussels seem at last to have focused attention and spurred European leaders into overdue action on intelligence cooperation.

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