Dáil debates

Thursday, 29 April 2021

1:05 pm

Photo of James BrowneJames Browne (Wexford, Fianna Fail)
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I move:

That Dáil Éireann approves the exercise by the State of the option or discretion under Protocol No. 21 on the position of the United Kingdom and Ireland in respect of the area of freedom, security and justice annexed to the Treaty on European Union and to the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, to take part in the adoption and application of the following proposed measure: Proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council amending Regulation (EU) 2016/794, as regards Europol’s cooperation with private parties, the processing of personal data by Europol in support of criminal investigations, and Europol’s role on research and innovation, a copy of which was laid before Dáil Éireann on 11th January, 2021.

I thank Members for agreeing to debate this motion today. The motion relates to a proposal to strengthen and develop Europol, increasing the services that it provides to European Union member states while remaining within the mission and tasks of the agency, as laid down in Article 88 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.

The deadline for opting in to the proposal under Article 3 of Protocol 21 is 3 May 2021. Opting in under Article 3 allows Ireland to take part fully in the adoption and application of the proposed measure, and to influence the content of the regulation that is to be agreed. Negotiations are well under way under the Portuguese Presidency of the Council. If the Houses support the opt-in, it is my intention to notify the institutions of our participation by Monday.

When Ireland signed up to the Lisbon treaty, the Government of the day made a declaration, which is attached to the treaties, that we would participate to the maximum extent possible in measures in the field of police co-operation. That remains the position of this Government.

Deputies may ask why the Government is seeking to participate in this regulation. First, this is very much a supplementary regulation. In 2016, these Houses agreed to Ireland's participating in a much broader regulation relating to Europol. The 2016 regulation reconstituted Europol as the European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Co-operation. It represented an effort by the European Union to step up its efforts to fight terrorism, cybercrime and other forms of serious and organised crime. It also created new governance structures and new relationships between Europol and the European institutions, as required by the Lisbon treaty. The 2016 regulation will remain as the main Europol regulation, with the new regulation adding on specific powers and filling in any gaps that currently exist, which I will mention shortly.

Second, An Garda Síochána fully supports Europol and values its membership of the organisation. An Garda Síochána is represented on the management board at assistant commissioner level, and gardaí are seconded to the organisation on an ongoing basis. The Garda Commissioner is of the view that the collaboration and co-operation that comes from Europol is invaluable in tackling serious cross-border crime. Europol is the centre point for communication between the law enforcement agencies of the European Union.

Third, Ireland is broadly supportive of the proposed amendments in this draft regulation seeking to strengthen the existing mandate of Europol which I will now mention briefly. The draft regulation seeks to enable Europol to co-operate effectively with private parties. Private parties, such as Internet service providers and social media companies, hold data that are increasingly relevant for law enforcement authorities. Currently, the rules for exchanges of personal data with private parties only permit Europol to receive such data as an exception. The new proposed amendments would enable Europol to support law enforcement in its interactions regarding, for example, the removal of terrorist content online.

The draft regulation seeks to enable Europol to more effectively support member states' investigations with the analysis of large and complex data sets, addressing the big data challenge for law enforcement authorities. Member states often cannot detect cross-border links through analysis of large data sets as they lack data on crime in other member states.

They also may not have the resources or the infrastructure to process such data. The amendments would provide legal clarity around the processing of data, the implementation of data protection safeguards and the boundaries for data storage.

The proposed regulation seeks to strengthen the role of Europol in regard to research and innovation, addressing any gaps that may exist for law enforcement authorities. It would also allow Europol to engage in research activities that include the development, training, testing and validation of algorithms for the development of new tools. This is a highly technical area that will allow Europol to help member states to make the most of the opportunities that new technologies can offer.

The proposed regulation aims to strengthen Europol's co-operation with third countries on preventing and countering serious and organised crime and terrorism. Serious crime does not stop at the European borders and co-operation with third countries will be of particular importance to Ireland given that our nearest neighbour, the United Kingdom, now has third country status. A new provision will outline Europol's co-operation with the European Public Prosecutor's Office, EPPO, through the exchange of information, provision of analytical support and specialist knowledge in criminal investigations. Europol would also be obligated to report criminality falling within the mandate of the EPPO.

The draft regulation seeks to further clarify that Europol may request, in specific cases where it considers that a criminal investigation should be initiated, the competent authorities of a member state to initiate, conduct or co-ordinate the investigation of a crime. Currently, Europol can request a member state to initiate an investigation. The member state should then respond within one month to such a request, and if it decides not to agree, provide reasons to Europol. Europol can only request an investigation that affects two or more member states. The proposal is to amend this to allow Europol to request an investigation into a crime that is not a cross-border crime, where Europol has formed the view that the crime in question is detrimental to the European Union.

The draft regulation aims to further strengthen the data protection framework and oversight applicable to Europol. It proposes to outline the designation, position and tasks of the data protection officer, DPO, of Europol. This is to highlight the importance of the DPO as an independent function where he or she can ensure the compliance of Europol with the data protection provisions and safeguards within the regulation. It should be remembered that the 2016 Europol regulation was negotiated before the completion of the negotiations on the GDPR. Finally, it seeks to strengthen parliamentary oversight and accountability of Europol. Europol is ultimately responsible to the home affairs Ministers of the European Union. It currently reports on a regular basis to the internal security working group of the Council. Providing Europol with additional tools and capabilities requires a reinforcement of its oversight and accountability arrangements. There are new proposals for joint scrutiny by the Council and by the European Parliament and new reporting obligations for Europol.

The continuously evolving security threats call for effective EU-level support to national law enforcement authorities such as An Garda Síochána. These threats spread across borders. They facilitate a variety of crimes and manifest themselves in organised crime groups engaged in a range of criminal activities. Action at national level will not suffice to address these transnational security challenges. Europol is well-positioned to provide the support that member states need to address such challenges. A decision by Ireland to opt in to this measure would be seen as a demonstration of our continued commitment to the effective functioning of Europol and to the wider security of the European Union. Our participation in Europol is vital to our national interest and we look forward to continuing to playing an active role with the agency.

I look forward to hearing the views of Deputies and I urge them to support the motion.

1:15 pm

Photo of Martin KennyMartin Kenny (Sligo-Leitrim, Sinn Fein)
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I thank the Minister of State, Deputy James Browne. I take this opportunity to congratulate the Minister, Deputy McEntee, on the birth of her baby boy this morning. I wish them all the best for the future. Having children is one of the greatest adventures of life. The Minister, Deputy McEntee, embarks on a new adventure today.

Sinn Féin supports the motion. The role of Europol in cross-border policing has developed over many years. It is vital to ensure we keep people safe everywhere. The world is now a much smaller place, as is Europe. When we exit the ravages of the Covid-19 pandemic, we will, hopefully, be able to travel freely again. That is a vital part of what we need to be able to do in Europe. Freedom of movement, freedom of capital and so on, which are at the core of the Europe Union, open up opportunity for criminal gangs and serious crime on a cross-border basis. This has to be addressed. I recognise that much of the crime which Europol is engaged in and investigating is the serious crime of drug trafficking, as well as people trafficking and other crimes of that nature which need to be dealt with appropriately. An Garda Síochána has a role to play here and it is playing that role.

I recently dealt with a case where a person had two children taken out of this country to another country. It is difficult to deal with law enforcement agencies in one's own country, but dealing with them in several countries at the same time is very stressful for families or individuals. Greater co-operation and integration between security forces, particularly police forces across member states, is vital in that regard. Europol is a key part of that.

The main point of this particular motion is to ensure there is co-operation with private parties as set out in the Minister of State's speech, which includes communications and online companies. I am interested to know if that includes private security firms, which can often be unregulated. We have had issues with them in this country, but in many other countries, they are very unregulated. We need to focus on how that is operating in other countries as well. We are dealing with this particular motion in an Irish context but it also has a reach into every other country in Europe, where it has to deal with variants of regulation in the different sectors within those countries and also different legal regimes and applications of the law within those countries. The legal systems in Ireland and in Britain are different to those in most countries in Europe. That is an issue of which we need to be conscious and aware.

Many people have had reason to deal with problems at an international level. It can sometimes be very difficult for people to deal with the forces of law and order in other countries at arm's length. There is, perhaps, a role here for An Garda Síochána to link up with people in this country who are trying to deal with such issues and to assist them in their dealings with law enforcement agencies in other states.

Europol has expanded and developed its technology and its way of doing things. As we know, it is based in The Hague and it has over 1,000 employees, which number will probably grow into the future. We are in a time when, apart from a global virus pandemic, we have a global crime pandemic. I mentioned the issue of people trafficking. Europe needs to address the issue of criminal gangs bringing people into many countries in Europe, including Ireland, where many of them are abused in the sex trade, which is not a trade but the abuse of human beings. This can only be dealt with at an international level. There needs to be a real focus on address of that crime. The issues of data and analysis of large-scale data are also addressed in the motion. It is clear to all that we need to have in place the resources to deal with international crime and the large, and often hidden, means by which they can operate.

I commend the Government on bringing forward the motion. The deadline in terms of opt-in is fast approaching. I suggest that in future we should try to deal with these matters more promptly than close to deadlines. I am sure the Minister of State would agree. As I said, Sinn Féin supports the motion and we hope it progresses through the Houses with great speed.

1:25 pm

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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Whenever we see words such as "Proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council amending Regulation (EU) 2016/794" on the Order Paper, we wonder what exactly we will be discussing. In this instance, we are dealing with a very important issue and a proposal I am happy to support. Ireland has the power to opt in and out of regulations on the matters to which the motion relates, mainly because of our relationship with the United Kingdom in the past. As members of the European Union together for more than 40 years, we mirrored the UK's opt-in-opt-out view on many justice-related matters. My first question to the Minister of State relates to how we might position ourselves into the future in the light of the new status of the UK as a third country. How will we maintain our links with the UK in terms of security and policing, which are extremely important, and how will the UK link into the EU, not only bilaterally with Ireland but also with the other member states?

A related issue is the question of how we are going to proceed into the future in terms of our involvement with justice issues as they arise. The importance of police co-operation on an international scale has never been more real. We have seen Irish criminal gangs become entirely internationalised, with some of them based in the Netherlands or Spain. Feuds that originate in this jurisdiction have had impacts in other jurisdictions, not only across the EU but beyond. There is no doubt in the world that we need to have the capacity to co-operate not only on a pan-European level, through Europol, but even beyond Europe. Criminal investigation is becoming more demanding and requires additional resources. Issues like data analysis, as the Minister of State referenced, forensic accounting and others require a degree of specialisation that we have only really begun in recent years to apply to policing in this country. We need not only trained members of the Garda, who go through a process of training in Templemore before progressing through the ranks, but also a range of specialist supports.

The Minister of State indicated that these proposals will strengthen with the EPPO. This is an issue we raised in a previous debate. At the time, we were not fully engaged with that office, with the reason cited being that we are a common law jurisdiction and this would prevent difficulties for our full participation. I am interested to know, if the Minister of State can give an update, whether we are more advanced in this regard than we were the last time he spoke to the House about it.

In the debate in the Upper House, the Minister of State dealt with the issue of co-operation between Europol and private parties. He has given a little more elaboration in that regard today. He said this issue would have significant implications for An Garda Síochána because of the presence here of so many European headquarters of Internet and social media providers. He talked in the other House about An Garda Síochána being able to influence any outcomes in this regard. Will he comment on how that will be brought about? He indicated that the proposed amendments would enable Europol to support law enforcement in its interactions regarding, for example, the removal of online terrorist content. How will that happen from a procedural point of view?

I do not expect the Minister of State will have time, in this very short debate, to deal with all the issues I and other Members raise. Will he come back to us on the points he does not have time to deal with in his closing remarks? Mar fhocal scoir, we support these proposals for greater co-operation between police forces as an absolutely essential adjunct to ensuring that criminality can be dealt with adequately. Criminal activity is now entirely internationalised, as highlighted by other speakers in referring to specific issues such as people trafficking. Our policing response, therefore, must be robust, internationalised and properly resourced.

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Social Democrats)
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I join colleagues in congratulating the Minister, Deputy McEntee, and her husband on the birth of their son. None of us is surprised that the new baby has arrived but we are all a bit surprised that it seemed to happen so soon after the commencement of the Minister's maternity leave. I wish her and her family the very best.

On the regulation we are discussing, we share the view that there is a need for co-operation in dealing with crime. However, we have significant and serious misgivings in regard to certain aspects of the provisions, which I hope the Minister of State will take on board. In considering this proposal to expand the data collection remit of Europol, it is important to take account of the reasons it has been put forward. In September last year, the European Data Protection Supervisor, EDPS, released an absolutely scathing report on Europol's handling of large databases or data sets. It found that national law enforcement agencies from various member states were increasingly transmitting very large data sets to Europol, rather than targeted data, to allow for criminal investigations to take place, and this breached the standards in the 2016 Europol regulation. These data sets contained vast amounts of personal data, concerning nobody knows how many individuals. They are too large to be adequately examined and this makes the regulation less effective.

The EDPS also found that personal information about innocent individuals who had no connection to the crimes in question was being processed through Europol's system. Its report stated that Europol had not properly implemented the data minimisation principle and the significant safeguards in the 2016 Europol regulation. That is a big red flag. The EDPS further noted that, as a result, data subjects run the risk of being linked wrongfully to criminal activity right across the European Union.

We need to look at the companies responsible for the software that deals with digital forensics. Technology companies and the products they create are not politically neutral or free from bias. Their founders and key employees create the software through the prism of their own viewpoint, values and moral philosophy. Europol uses the Gotham software developed by Palantir Technologies to conduct data analysis. That company, run by Peter Thiel, is known to be one of the controversial private technology firms, with an involvement in Cambridge Analytica and, in the US, the National Security Agency, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the CIA. Palantir Technologies has become increasingly active across Europe, especially during the initial stages of the pandemic, and it sees Europe as a key focus for its activities. The EDPS report raises concerns that the Gotham system was not designed to make it clear how people's data enter the system, which led to the problem of being unable to distinguish without doubt whether someone was a suspect, informant, witness or victim of crime.

The EDPS raised concerns about the decision to use this specific company. There are real dangers for the EU in relying on particular technology companies that are based outside the European jurisdiction, especially when they are involved in matters of domestic security. The proposal will see the scope of Europol's data-gathering powers massively expanded. The current limits on the categories of people on whom the agency can gather data, such as criminal witnesses and victims, could be circumvented to legalise the large data sets that will be transferred to the agency. I also have concerns about a report published by the European Network Against Racism, ENAR, on migrant and minority communities across Europe. Specifically, there is a concern that particular views may be reinforced into a technical approach. That has to be avoided.

I wish there was more time to speak on these proposals. There is no doubt that we need co-operation to fight crime across jurisdictions. However, it must be done as safely as possible.

I have concerns about some of the issues the data supervisor flagged. If we are to endorse this, then at a minimum we have to flag the significant and reasonable concerns highlighted by the EDPS.

1:35 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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As there is no Deputy present from Solidarity-People Before Profit, the next contributor will be Deputy Matt Shanahan from the Regional Group.

Photo of Matt ShanahanMatt Shanahan (Waterford, Independent)
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We are now firmly living in an age of digital advancement. The change this is bringing to our lives is evident in every sector, community and home. Digitisation and technology development are greatly improving many aspects of our social, economic and cultural lives. However, they are also creating a national vulnerability that Ireland cannot manage on its own. This is true of every other European country too. Therefore, our defence to cybercrime lies in a pan-European cybersecurity response.

What was once deemed fanciful thinking from the pages of Marvel comics and science fiction films is today a present reality. The development of artificial intelligence and cyber intelligence are accelerating all the time. Our national challenge is to be enabled by developing technology rather than emasculated by it. As with all threat scenarios, we must quantify the risk and be ready to implement appropriate responses. This requires insightful intelligence, expertise and proactive planning of resources to build a co-ordinated response. Given our resource platforms, we are best served by integrating fully with the European response to cybercrime and terrorism security.

The reality of Brexit has firmly positioned Ireland as a fully signed up member of the European project. That reality exposes the vulnerability of Ireland to international crime and terrorism opportunities. These traits are not only national but transnational. Where digital technology is being utilised, these traits are not bounded by borders. Cybercrime is now a well established fact in Ireland. Many companies have faced hacking and ransomware attacks as well as fraudulent invoicing that involves using forged signatures and trademarks. This is something I have seen personally with regard to a company in Waterford. In that case, had it not been for the actions of the Garda fraud office and the ability of the officers to liaise with European cybercrime colleagues, a significant financial loss on an international financial transfer would have occurred. That would have cost enterprise and jobs.

In recent weeks, there has been much discussion in the media regarding the privilege and protection of personal data and how they are stored and protected. In the modern digital age of cybercrime, data are the new currency to be traded and mined to deliver fraudulent opportunity. Our national law enforcement capability cannot react fully to the transnational security challenge that faces the EU bloc through cybercrime, organised criminal activity and terrorism opportunity. Therefore, we need to integrate our crime detection and response capability with those of other European countries to protect our country from malevolent large-scale crime and terrorist syndicates that target our shores daily. If people think this statement is an exaggeration, I ask them to ponder the volume of illegal drugs that pass through this country every year in response to domestic and European demand. We might also consider the human trafficking that has taken place in this country or that has been assisted by Irish individuals. This has included the exploitation of manual labourers and sex workers.

This legislation seeks to further cement Europol as the centrepiece for European law enforcement co-operation. It proposes to give additional powers to handle large data sets to assist Ireland's crime prevention service, which has neither the capability nor the resources to fully analyse such data. The proposed legislation seeks to strengthen our individual and pan-European responses to counter criminal activity in communications, banking and transport services. These are among the largest sectors that facilitate international crime and terrorism. This new legislation will aid additional co-operation in policing and judicial matters. It will also allow the increased sharing of data and information of third country nationals and citizens on the Schengen information system, which is a European database used by Europol. This information may be used in future prosecutions taken with Europol support.

The Regional Group supports this proposed legislation. We believe our future lies in Europe and through integrating with European cybercrime and terrorist responses.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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We move to the Rural Independent Group. Deputy Michael Collins is sharing time with Deputy Mattie McGrath.

Photo of Michael CollinsMichael Collins (Cork South West, Independent)
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The proposals contained in the motion were published in December 2020. They could vastly increase the powers of the EU policing agency, Europol. They would grant Europol new data processing powers, a role in developing algorithms for the police and a mechanism to facilitate co-operation with non-EU states. The policy states: "In specific cases where Europol considers that a criminal investigation should be initiated into a crime falling within the scope of its objectives, it shall request the competent authorities of the Member States concerned via the national units to initiate, conduct or coordinate such a criminal investigation." That is a concern. What are the implications of this for Ireland? I believe this provision will allow Europol to set priorities for member states when it comes to investigations being carried out in the relevant territory. Is this the case? Can the Minister clarify the matter? Many member states have flagged concerns about the contents of this provision.

What level of consultation with Ireland, as a member state, will be required when it comes to sharing data with private parties? This is especially troubling when the private party concerned is not established within the Union or in a country with which Europol has a co-operation agreement. It would allow for the exchange of personal data under an international agreement which the Union has concluded under Article 218 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. Was this matter raised by the Government? Are there implications for the rights of Irish citizens?

Previous speakers spoke about cyberbullying and hacking. I was the victim of hacking this week for the first time in my life. It was not a major incident but it was frustrating to learn that people received emails with falsified details looking for personal details and they appeared to be sent from my email address. My thanks go to the dozens of people who contacted me because they were concerned. They knew it was fictitious. It was a frustrating situation. I would like some clarity on the questions I asked the Minister and I would appreciate if he could provide it.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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I am pleased to speak on this motion. While we all want a stronger police force and stronger supports for Interpol, we have to be careful that we do not sign up to something that erodes our status in Europe. We have so many ideas. The document provided by the Commission to member states on 5 March last was sizeable covers many issues. The purpose is to enable Europe to co-operate effectively with private parties. We are all for that. It will also enable Europol to process large, complex data sets and strengthen Europe's role in research and innovation. These are all noble aims but I have concerns.

I agree fully that we must be able to deal with criminals, sophisticated criminal gangs and sophisticated cybercrime. We must be careful as well. It is a difficult issue. There is a reference to strengthening Europe's co-operation with third countries. I note there is mention of giving information to the Schengen organisation. It is rather complex.

In these times, we are seeing how liberties are being seriously eroded. I hope I will not get another lecture from the Minister like the one I got last night. I will not take such a lecture. I believe that our liberties are being significantly restrained and that it is a dangerous time.

At least the Tánaiste corrected the record today when he said that no one opposed any of the issues that I said we had. He corrected the record and I accept that. Nevertheless, it is worrying.

I heard the Tánaiste's reply to Deputy O'Dea about European passports for vaccines.

What position are we going to be in and how many more treaties are we going to have to sign up to? It is time to stop and make haste slowly and to consider what we are doing here. It is not as simple as a nod and a wink and a five-minute debate time for each group. This has very significant implications. There is obviously good and bad in everything but we need to make haste slowly and to be sure that we are not signing ourselves up to something that we will regret. There will be issues. Our citizens above all have to be protected while at the same time trying to protect the laws of the land and our citizens in dealing with drug and other crime as well. We have to be wide awake and to understand what we are signing up to. I have concerns.

1:45 pm

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent)
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This regulation relates to Europol, its cooperation with other parties, its data processing as part of criminal investigations and its role in innovation and research.

These regulations and directives are technical, convoluted and designed to ostracize citizens around Europe. How inaccessible are the European Parliament and the Council in the business they conduct? There must be a better way of doing this.

Europol is located in The Hague, the Netherlands, and states that it supports “the 27 EU Member States in their fight against terrorism, cybercrime and other serious and organised forms of crime”. There are over 1,000 staff; 220 liaison officers and approximately 100 crime analysts that reportedly support over 40,000 international investigations per year.

Earlier this week, in the Committee on Justice, we heard from the Data Protection Commissioner and other experts on GDPR. There was a great amount of criticism of the Data Protection Commissioner. Interestingly, in researching for today, this regulation is cited on the Data Protection Commissioner’s website. It says that since 1 May 2017: “In line with Europol Regulation (EU) 2016/794, the European Data Protection Supervisor is designated as the supervisor of personal data processing”.

There are national supervisory authorities through a Europol Cooperation Board, ECB, for which the European data protection supervisors provides the secretariat. The website states that:

the EDPS acts as an independent supervisory authority with full-fledged enforcement powers, whose decisions can be challenged before the European Court of Justice. The EDPS is also accountable for his or her supervision activity before the Joint Parliamentary Scrutiny Group, JPSG, composed of representatives of the European and of national Parliament, established under the Europol Regulation.

Will there be any changes to this aspect of data protection through the amendments of this regulation?

Last June, Europol’s EU Terrorism Situation and Trend, TE-SAT, report showed that right-wing extremism was growing in Ireland. The report showed that in 2019 there was an increase in violent right-wing activities. Europol reported that there is a “strong international network involving right-wing extremists from Ireland, other European countries and the USA”. I would think that it is fair to say that since the emergence of Covid-19 globally the far right have gained stronger footholds in communities. They are preying on people’s fears, the anti-Government, anti-lockdown and anti-mask sentiment in trying to build their movements. So much of this recruitment and grooming is happening online. Europol and all other relevant agencies, civil society groups and others are going to have to step up their game to combat the spread of disinformation, lies and dangerous scapegoating. In this regard I would like to commend the Far Right Observatory and similar groups which have been working diligently to gather information on the tactics, personalities and plans of the far right in Ireland. I wonder what our State has in mind in this regard also because it is vitally important.

Europol has also reported that the Covid-19 pandemic has opened up opportunities for criminal gangs. There are gangs offering fake vaccines and bogus home testing kits. Europol’s Serious and Organised Crime Threat Assessment, SOCTAS, report has said that the threat has never been greater. The SOCTAS review is conducted every four years into the impact of high-level crime on the EU. Media reports said that Europol “previously identified the Rathkeale Rovers, an Irish-based crime gang, as forging Covid-19 test results and selling the false documents across Europe.”

Another arm of Europol is its European Financial and Economic Crime Centre, EFECC. The EFECC is said to have played a part in working on the intelligence provided by different countries on an Irish criminal network. This led to the Criminal Asset Bureau of An Garda Síochána taking action against a criminal gang. There were fund transfers in excess of €4 million identified from other jurisdictions into Irish bank accounts linked to members of this criminal network. This is an example of agencies working well together to go after serious criminals.

The explanatory memorandum provided on the regulation speaks to the digital transformation of the landscape. It tells us that the European Counter Terrorism Centre of Europol has increased fivefold. In 2016, there were 127 operational cases supported and this had risen to 632 cases in 2019. A resolution by the European Parliament in July last year called for cross-border investigations into “serious attacks against whistleblowers and investigative journalists” and it would be interesting to see that developed.

As always, the Commission plans to strengthen Europol’s mandate. We are told that the legislation “takes full account of the relevant EU data protection legislation”. I have noticed that this is a one-sentence-fits-all statement but as we heard in the Committee on Justice earlier this week there are questions around the application and enforcement of data protection legislation in Ireland, so I would imagine that it is similar in other member states. I also wonder how that will be impacted by this proposal.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I thank the Deputy call the Minister of State.

Photo of James BrowneJames Browne (Wexford, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Deputies for their contributions. There were some important and technical issues raised and I will try to get answers for the Deputies on some of those points.

We all agree that co-operation with Europol makes sense. The threats that we face are continuing to evolve. Criminals will always be ready to exploit the advantages that they can gain from new situations and technologies and I am thinking about the Internet and how fast this is changing in our everyday lives. Globalisation and increased mobility of people also present new opportunities for criminals. I am conscious that there have been four significant terrorist attacks in Europe since September 2020 alone. Terrorism remains a significant threat to our freedom and to the way of life of the citizens of the European Union.

I have no doubt that criminals will exploit the Covid-19 crisis in ways that we have not even imagined yet. The European Commission is of the view that the full impact of the Covid-19 crisis on security is not yet apparent but it could potentially shape the landscape of serious and organised crimes in the EU for the mid to long term. Given how everything is changing, we must ensure that Europol has the capabilities and tools to support member states effectively in countering serious crime and terrorism. The political guidelines for the von der Leyen Commission stated that the EU would leave no stone unturned when it comes to protecting our citizens.

While this appears to be a highly technical proposal from the Commission, it is simply about keeping people safe. As I said earlier, the opt-in allows Ireland to participate in the negotiation process. It is not clear if all of the issues raised in the draft regulation will be part of the final agreed instrument. There may be elements of the proposals that would be of real value to Ireland and some elements that would be of less importance to us. With that in mind, I do not propose to go over all of the key provisions of the regulation again but there are a number that I would like to focus on.

First, I refer to co-operation with third countries. The 2016 regulation gave the power to the European Commission to conclude co-operation agreements on behalf of Europol with third countries. Since then, no new agreements have been reached and negotiations are underway with only one third country, New Zealand. There is a requirement to put such agreements in place in a quicker manner and Ireland will support any changes which will allow that to happen. The amending regulation proposes changes to allow the executive director to be authorised to transfer certain data to third countries in specific situations on a case-by-case basis. The circumstances for such transfers will need to be properly regulated.

Concerns have been raised in this House and in the other House on data protection. Europol already operates to the highest standards in this regard. Given the importance of the processing of personal data for the work of police in general, this draft regulation puts a particular focus on the need to ensure full compliance with the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union and notably the rights to the protection of personal data and the respect of private life.

The regulation also outlined a more detailed designated position and the tasks of the Europol data protection officer, highlighting the importance of this function in the EU data protection architecture. There are new safeguards on the processing of personal data for research innovation processes and new provisions on the keeping of records of categories of data-processing activities.

Questions have been raised about the provision on "private parties". By "private parties" the regulation is referring to private non-state actors which are legal persons. This would include Internet service providers and social media companies. Criminals increasingly use the cross-border services of private parties to communicate and carry out illegal activities such as child pornography, radicalisation or credit card fraud.

The new rules would allow Europol to engage directly with private parties in member states. The new provisions respond to the problems faced by private parties and law enforcement authorities when co-operating on crimes in which the offender, victims and relevant IT infrastructure are under multiple jurisdictions within the European Union and beyond.

The new provisions would also allow Europol to support law enforcement authorities in its interactions with private parties on, for example, the removal of terrorist content online. These provisions are highly important.

I refer also to the provisions in relation to the parliamentary oversight and accountability of Europol. The European Parliament has been supportive of a stronger role for Europol. A resolution in the parliament in July 2020 stated that "a strengthened mandate should go hand-in-hand with adequate parliamentary scrutiny". The European Parliament will require detailed justification for the necessity for any new data processing capability at Europol and will call for strong data protection safeguards.

Provisions contained in the draft introduce new reporting obligations for Europol to the joint parliamentary scrutiny group and I support these provisions. To enable effective political monitoring, Europol should provide a joint parliamentary group with annual information on the use of these new provisions.

Deputies will be aware that Ireland only recently joined the Schengen Information System, SIS, which enables Europe's law enforcement authorities to check and share data on banned, missing and wanted individuals, as well as lost or stolen property. This is the largest law enforcement database in Europe and connecting to it has already enhanced our national security and strengthened our co-operation at a European level.

This legislative initiative is linked to a separate legislative initiative that would allow Europol to enter data into the Schengen Information System, SIS, on the suspected involvement of a third country national in a crime in respect of which Europol is competent. Ireland is automatically bound by the SIS proposal, which the Government supports.

Finally, a range of other smaller but, still important, provisions are contained in the draft regulation that will add to the existing tasks of Europol, including supporting member states special intervention units; supporting member states through the co-ordination of cyber attacks; supporting investigations against high-risk criminals; supporting the Commission and the member states in carrying out effective risk assessments; providing threat assessment analysis; allowing Europol staff to give evidence in criminal proceedings in member states; and clarifying that Europol staff may provide operational support in member states should they be requested to do so.

The benefits of Ireland's full participation in Europol will always far outweigh any small aspects we do not like or do not seem to be relevant to us. As Minister of State, I would like to support An Garda Síochána in having access to all of the international systems and networks available to help it solve crime. International co-operation in tackling crime is essential in the modern world given the nature of serious and organised crime and terrorism. Consequently, full and active membership of organisations such as Europol is essential.

Once again, I ask the Deputies to support this motion and to support Ireland's continued, active engagement in Europol.

Question put and agreed to.