A Europe-wide database of personal information would undermine our civi l liberties, warns Andrew Orlowski
It sounds like a good idea: a Europe-wide computer system to catch criminals who evade national police forces by slipping across borders. But in fact, the birth of the European Police Office - Europol - has been heralded as the first step towards an alarming era of techno-policing. "It's Big Brother coming to Europe," says Harry Cohen, the Labour MP for Leyton.

The new organisation already exists in the Hague, but its centrepiece will be a sophisticated database that stores personal information for exchange between the 15 member states of the European Union. There is no opting out. Once the Europol Convention has been ratified - expected by this summer - the database will hold information on criminals and suspects and also the victims of crime.

As Lord Wedderburn remarked at a recent House of Lords hearing: "This covers pretty well all of us." For Harry Cohen, who has made three attempts to pilot data protection legislation through the Commons, it is a solution in search of a problem.

"It's extremely dangerous," he says. "It increases circulations of false data, with no opportunity to correct errors. The existing arrangements of bilateral exchanges between countries should continue." He adds that the changes themselves could create problems, such as the information falling into the hands of international criminals.

The academics have coined an unlovely term for it: informatisation. Terry Thomas, co-author of a forthcoming book Policing Europe and lecturer at Leeds Metropolitan University, defines it as the growth of exchange in personal information. "Data has become a currency which all police forces appreciate and value: a kind of lingua franca," he says.

Traditionally, he explains, information was gained on a per-case basis. Now it is cultivated for future use. It justifies its own existence.

While Europol is limited at first to an intelligence-gathering role, a fully fledged Euro-FBI is a distinct possibility. Ernst Hirsch Ballin, the Netherlands' Justice Minister, has gone on record as advocating the expansion of the organisation into a European Law Enforcement Network, with "branch offices" alongside national police forces, although such developments are not favoured by our Home Office.

Europol, however, has been dogged by disagreement and secrecy. Member states have failed, for example, to agree on a basic definition of "organised crime", and the convention document is undergoing its seventh redraft.

The organisation's 77 staff in the Hague, rising to 115 by the year end, are haunted by the disastrous experience of an earlier European Union computer initiative, the Schengen Information System. This became operational two years later than planned, following technical difficulties: the basic way the computers talk to each other was changed halfway through the project in an operation one networking consultant likened to "swapping the propellers for jet engines while the plane is in mid-air".

The lack of protection for the individual has alarmed the House of Lords inquiry. Tony Bunyan, editor of the monthly human rights journal Statewatch, argues that citizens have the right to know three things: whether information is held, what it is, and where we can go if it's incorrect. He cites Germany's legislation as a model of data protection.

"Each region has full-time staff and the power to go into police stations, to demand to see records and tell the police what it is permissible to keep," he says. In this way, out-of-date of false information can be removed.

Under UK legislation, individuals will have no recourse to law. The UK objects to involving the European Court of Justice, and has vetoed European legislation on the prohibition of data held solely on the basis of the subject's race, religion, sexual behaviour or political persuasion - it is unwilling to delay the Europol database until a new law is in place.

Peter Wrench, of the Home Office, told the Lords: "It is not an acceptable option to stand back a few years while a data protection regime is sorted out."

Proof of the potential risks to civil liberties caused by the use of incorrect data can be seen in the case of the three Boore brothers, who were arrested on their arrival in Belgium for a football match - not because of anything they had done but because their names were incorrectly linked with those of criminals on the National Criminal Intelligence Service database.

Civil liberties specialists believe that the idea of holding data for the whole of Europe in a single place is flawed.

"The idea that illegal immigration, organised crime, car theft and terrorism are all growing is pretty flimsy," says Mr Bunyan. "We've already got the institutions - such as Interpol and the European Drugs Agency - to deal with them."

The issue is Europe's obsessive secrecy. Edward Newman, the Labour MEP for Greater Manchester Central, who sits on the European Parliament's civil liberties committee says: "They only tell us what they want to tell us."

Even Europol's Information Office seems to be afflicted by this syndrome. After giving a briefing to the Independent, one of its staff said: " You don't even know my name. We've never spoken."