Europol's Role in Cybercrime, Counter-Terrorism Evolves

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By Tera Brostoff

May 25 — Europol, Europe's law enforcement agency, handles issues involving counter-terrorism efforts, organized cyber crim, and data threats. Due to the nature of its purpose, Europol is forced to tackle the balance of privacy and security, define types of data and handle government investigations.

Europe isn't the United States—stricter privacy laws apply to data and its transfer. And Europol isn't the European version of the Federal Bureau of Investigations—the agency lacks the ‘coercive power' that the FBI is permitted to use in enforcement.

Jan Ellermann is a senior specialist at Europol's Data Protection Agency and has been with the agency since 2007. He spoke at Georgetown University Law Center's Cyber Security Law Institute May 25, describing Europol's purpose and strategies.

Not the FBI

Europol functions by exchanging information among the European Union's member states and corporate partners. The United States is also included in the exchange, when necessary.

“We closely coordinate with the FBI and the CIA, and our aim is to collect information with the primary purpose of conducting crime analysis,” Ellermann explained.

Europol silos data and information about people and crime. Most data is compiled in SOC, which stands for serious and organized crime. Other data finds its way to the CT silo because of its relationship to counter-terrorism.

“When we lay our hands on data, it's not just any kind of data, it's sensitive personal data,” Ellermann said.

Counter-Terrorism Efforts

Europol's focuses have evolved as threats have developed in the digital age. After the events in Paris last fall and the recent terrorism in Brussels this spring, the agency created the European Counter Terrorism Centre to investigate potential terror threats. According to Ellermann, approximately 20 Europol agents browse social media—such as Twitter and Facebook—daily to detect terrorism censorship.

“The question arises as to whether this is an act of internet censorship,” Ellermann noted. “However, all we are doing is reporting to these services that we believe a certain handle is using propaganda.”

It's up to Twitter or Facebook to shut down the handle.

The Apple Case in Europe

And while the tension between Apple Inc. and the government over decrypting phones belonging to terror suspects has been an over-arching topic of discussion in the United States, Ellermann says such conversations and cases are commonplace in the EU.

“These cases occur on a daily basis,” Ellermann explained.

Last week Europol organized a conference on the topic of privacy in the digital age of encryption and anonymity online. The goal of the conference was to bring together not just investigators, but also industry representatives.

“The investigators taught us about their frustration in how far they can go with an online investigation,” Ellermann said. “In many occasions, you simply can't put feet on the ground with these investigations because there is just nothing offline.”

Balancing Act

And as for the ongoing debate about whether or not privacy and security concerns require some balance, Ellermann emphasized that discussions at Eurpol revolve around transparency.

“On many occasions we can find common ground,” Ellermann said, emphasizing the need for good communication.

To contact the reporter on this story: Tera Brostoff in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Carol Eoannou at

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