The threat comes from a draft directive on data protection, published two years ago, which is on the verge of reaching the Council of Ministers and being given the full force of law.
Aimed at curbing the junk mail industry, the directive says people must be told whenever an organisation intends to collect information about them. Unless they agree in writing, any files must be destroyed.
At first, the proposals won support from consumer groups concerned about the growth of direct mail shots. They pointed out that legislation existed in Britain giving protection against computer-held information and asked why this should not be extended to manual files. But then organisations such as Amnesty International realised what effect the directive would have on their work.
If, for instance, Ammesty wanted to compile a dossier on a prisoner in a South American jail, it would have to get his permission. This would alert the authorities and put the inmate in grave danger, human rights workers say.
The media has also been alarmed by the proposals. The directive might mean that a journalist would have to write to public figures asking if they gave permission for a dossier to be compiled about them.
Thus, newspapers could not keep information on the government scientists criticised by the Court of Appeal for their failings at Judith Ward's trial in 1974. Similarly, attempts to expose Robert Maxwell would have never got off the ground. Alerted to a forthcoming article or television documentary, Mr Maxwell would simply have sought an injunction, lawyers say.
Geoff Hoon, the Labour MEP who produced a report on the directive for the European Parliament, said: 'Imagine having to write to a leading mafiosi, 'Dear Sir, we intend to compile a file on you. Do you mind?' ' In his report, Mr Hoon suggests more than 150 amendments toning down what he sees as the draconian nature of the directive. Among them is a call to drop the proposal that companies should be banned from collecting information unless they have written permission. Instead, organisations should be allowed to compile dossiers unless they are told not to, Mr Hoon says. The key, he believes, is enabling people to check that information held on them is correct. The report, an advisory document only, was adopted by the parliament, which also wanted newspapers and television to be exempted from the directive.
Some members are willing to accept these amendments, although their view may not prevail.
The British Government opposes any measures that go beyond existing data protection legislation but could be outvoted by its European partners.
Last week, Amnesty said: 'If the proposals are implemented in this way they will completely undermine our work. It will be almost impossible.'