Cross-border access to electronic evidence: update and impact of the pandemic on data requests

Europol, Eurojust and the European Judicial Network publish today the third annual edition of the SIRIUS European Union Digital Evidence Situation Report. This year, the report goes beyond a comprehensive status update by including an assessment of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the access of EU authorities to electronic evidence held by foreign-based online service providers (OSPs) in 2020. 

Cross-border access to digital evidence is crucial to most investigations, and it became even more relevant during the pandemic, when there was an acceleration in the digitalization of everyday life. In one case mentioned in the report, for instance, law enforcement officers had to react quickly to prevent phishing scams for digital signatures – a crime area on the rise because of the pandemic.

The third joint report reflects the complexity of cross-border investigations involving electronic evidence, offering extensive information gathered from over 250 surveyed officials of EU Member States’ law enforcement and judicial authorities, together with relevant inputs coming from a dozen of major online service providers.  

The SIRIUS platform appears as the highest-ranked source of information

For the first time, the SIRIUS platform, hosted on the Europol Platform for Experts, is the number one source of information for law enforcement practitioners seeking assistance in relation to data requests under voluntary cooperation. It was selected ahead of Single Points of Contacts and national units, and cements the SIRIUS project as a centre of reference in the field of electronic evidence.

Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on requests for electronic evidence 

Criminals took advantage of the pandemic, adapting cybercrime activity like phishing campaigns, ransomware, or sales of counterfeit products. Almost half of police officers surveyed stated that their need for electronic evidence increased during the pandemic, but about 25% reported that their capacity to request e-evidence decreased, most likely caused by the transition to remote working. Similarly, social distancing measures and lockdowns had an impact on the daily work of judicial authorities:  35% of respondents reported delays in procedures caused by reduced capacity. However, some of the solutions, such as acceptance of electronic documents, were embraced by the judicial community as a positive outcome. Overall, the rise in digitalisation has increased the need for electronic evidence, and authorities have had to adapt very quickly.

Increased relevance of electronic evidence in criminal investigations.

The volume of cross-border requests submitted by EU authorities to eight large OSPs increased 27% in 2020 in comparison with the previous year, with a large majority of them issued by Germany and France, and mainly to Facebook and Google. There was a very significant increase of 112% in emergency disclosure request in 2020 compared to 2019, with Facebook receiving most of them, among the OSPs analysed. 

Europol’s Executive Director Ms Catherine de Bolle said:  “Effective policing in the digital age largely relies on harnessing the potential of online processes, alongside the ability to handle electronic evidence securely and verifiably. Nothing has made it clearer that the COVID-19 crisis which saw law enforcement having to adapt quickly to an unprecedented situation, relying on both existing digital solutions already in place and those deployed in response to the reality of a global pandemic. This joint report with Eurojust and the European Judicial Network is timely in that it provides all the partners of the EU security chain a better understanding of the challenges and opportunities related to digital evidence.”

Eurojust President Mr Ladislav Hamran stated: ‘This third joint Report reflects the complexity that results from a constantly evolving digital landscape and fragmented legal framework. It also shows how the global COVID-19 pandemic forced the EU’s judiciary to develop innovative approaches and adapt existing processes. We clearly see, as well, that our success in the fight against organised crime depends on the strength of our mutual partnerships. As long as we work together, we can strike the right balance between obtaining access to electronic evidence and upholding the fundamental rights and liberties of our citizens.’

Download the SIRIUS European Union Digital Evidence Situation Report 2021

The SIRIUS project, co-implemented by Eurojust and Europol, is a central reference point in the EU for knowledge sharing on cross-border access to electronic evidence. It offers a variety of services, such as guidelines, trainings and tools, to help with accessing data held by online service providers. These services are available to law enforcement and judicial authorities via a platform and an application. To this day, SIRIUS serves a community of competent authorities from 44 countries, representing all EU Member States and a growing number of third countries. 

The SIRIUS Project has received funding from the European Commission’s Service for Foreign Policy Instruments (FPI) under grant agreement No PI/2017/391-896.