The European Unionâ€™s privacy watchdog has given warning that new access for Europol to personal data could lead to individuals being labelled as terror suspects based on hearsay or records of their shopping habits.
The warning, from the head of the European Data Protection supervisor, comes amid moves to allow the EU police agency to process so-called â€œsoft dataâ€ in search of relevant information for its criminal investigations.
Peter Hustinx said that moves to give Europol the power to gather intelligence on â€œpeople who have not (yet) committed a crimeâ€ are without privacy safeguards.
He told The Daily Telegraph: â€œThe proposal does not specify what data could be used in criminal investigations. It could be everything. It could be a vital detail such as an insurance company about a stolen car. But it could also be soft data, behavioural data.â€
The information could include statements of hearsay given to a local police force or data on personal shopping habits from a supermarket loyalty card, he said.
Under the new Europol rules, expected to be agreed by governments later this year, people will be unable to find out what information is held on them unless all 27 EU police forces unanimously grant permission.
Sayed Kamall, the Conservative Euro-MP, shares the watchdogâ€™s fears and is concerned that â€œbehavioural dataâ€ will lead to ethnic profiling.
â€œFor example, someone who purchases kosher meat and never shops on the sabbath, or who buys halal meat but not alcohol, can easily be categorised and every purchase scrutinised, no matter how innocent it may be,â€ he said.
Mr Hustinx, a Dutchman with decades of experience as a national privacy watchdog and data protection at the European level, is worried at the absence of proper safeguards to ensure the reliability of â€œsoft dataâ€.
He said that individuals could easily be identified as suspects, giving the example of someone seen standing next to a terror suspect at a bus stop and becoming labelled â€œa facilitator for terrorismâ€.
Max-Peter Ratzel, Europolâ€™s director, said that European law enforcers needed to update and extend the scope of intelligence gathering – which is unchanged since the EU police agency was set up in the early 1990s.
â€œOur databases are on organised or serious international crime so I would assume that ordinary citizens would not have any possibility of being there,â€ he said.