Several European Union agencies, including Frontext have been accused of supporting surveillance in third countries, in breach of EU rules.
Privacy International, a privacy and security NGO along with five other human rights organisations have filed an official complaint with the EU Ombudsman who is responsible for oversight of EU agencies and bodies. They claim maladministration by EU agencies and a long list of accusations.
They singled out Frontex, the European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Training, and the European External Action Service as entities that have transferred surveillance capabilities, equipment, and support to non-EU countries.
“EU institutions are under an obligation to conduct human rights risk and impact assessments prior to engaging in any form of surveillance transfer. Prior risk and impact assessments are needed to ensure that any surveillance transfer will not result to serious violations of the right to privacy or facilitate other serious violations of human rights,” they said.
Their research demonstrates that in most cases, no human rights risk and impact assessments were carried out prior to working with authorities in third countries.
They have called on the Ombudsmand to confirm that the bodies are rquired to carry out such assessments. If this is the case and they haven’t been carried out, they ask that a ruling of maladministration is given and measures are taken to address the matter.
The situation, they said, could potentially have implications for millions of people both inside and outside the EU.
In November 2020, Privacy International accused Frontex and other EU agencies of exporting surveillance that could be used to crush political and civil freedoms. Following several months of investigations, they have now made the accusation formal.
By equipping and training third country authorities, including Albania, they hope to stem the flow of people attempting to reach the EU’s borders. But these tools, they report, are being used to enhance political control by tracking and surveilling populations, activists, journalists, and opposition movements.
Privacy International said that without urgent changes to the EU’s policies, this programme of outsourcing could have a serious impact on freedom and democracy.
In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the EU provided a sophisticated wiretapping system to the State Investigation and Protection Agency which is then used throughout the law enforcement system. They were also given fingerprinting devices and databases.
On the Ukraine-Belarus border, the EU financed cameras and license plate scanning software to enable authorities to be alerted to information about approaching vehicles. The similar kit was distributed along the Ukrainian-Moldovan border in 2018.
The training was given to Albanian authorities by German police under the title “Financial Investigation Challenges in Regional Migration’. Courses of this type, given by FRONTEX taught participants how to secure evidence for intelligence purposes including from mobile phones, how to acquire fingerprints from people including children and those with disabilities, and some basic self-defence techniques.
FRONTEX also organised training in Croatia in 2019 where Albanian authorities were present. They were instructed on how to use technical equipment for land border surveillance, radio communication, and techniques for searching people and vehicles.
According to Privacy International, limited information on international human rights law was given and failed to stem “regular reports by activists and monitors showing evidence of severe abuses and unlawful practices at the hands of authorities in EU member states and across other Balkan countries.”