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Belgium’s Deputy Prime Minister says the Brussels Attacks Don't Justify Mass Surveillance

Alexander De Croo has spoken out against mass public surveillance programs in the past, but his stance has slightly evolved in recent months.
Photo via VICE News

Twin blasts rocked the Brussels airport this morning, killing 14 people and injuring dozens more. Soon after, an explosion tore through a train at the Maelbeek metro station in southeastern part of the Belgian capital, leaving at least 20 dead. The bombings, which were claimed by the Islamic State, came just four days after the arrest in Brussels of a suspected participant in the terrorist attacks last November in Paris.


Less than 24 hours later, the attacks have already raised questions about Belgium's approach to national security. But at least one high-ranking Belgian official, Deputy Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, believes that the country should not sacrifice the civil liberties of its citizens by allowing warrantless surveillance in pursuit of the perpetrators who plotted the attacks.

"I think that is a normal reaction, and I think our role as the politicians is to look at the broader picture and to do sensible things," he told VICE News. "But not in some kind of really quick reaction based on emotions."

Related: What We Know So Far About the Brussels Attacks

De Croo, who earlier this year said security in Belgium was good and that the country had taken necessary measures to boost safety, has spoken out against mass public surveillance programs in the past. In recent months, however, his stance has slightly evolved. For example, he previously said that individuals should be able to obtain unregistered cell phone numbers and phone cards. His view changed with the recent passage of legislation that requires all numbers to be linked to an individual. He noted that even in the case of the new law, the identifying phone information can only be obtained with a warrant.

"The general liberties should remain, the innocent Belgians should see minimal change to his rights," he said. "But the person who is a suspect obviously you need to be able to evolve the legal tools you have to the new technology."


"We evolve and become tougher on anyone who is a suspect, but you minimize impact on the general public in Belgium," he said.

As for how the country's national security and surveillance principles might evolve going forward, De Croo said they have already been altered since the Paris attacks. With a warrant, he said, authorities can and should be allowed to listen in on a suspects and access certain information. This is how the country's security apparatus now operates.

Related: 'We Are at War': Europe Responds to Brussels Terror Attacks

"Anyone is innocent until proven the opposite," he said. "I think our principles should remain. It can never be an open-book [policy that says] we're going to monitor everyone."

Views on surveillance and privacy are not the only aspect of Belgian society that are likely shift in the coming days and months. De Croo, who is also the minister for development Cooperation, digital agenda, telecommunications, and postal services, specifically highlighted the fact that parts of the country have become spots for radicalization and recruitment by Islamist extremists, such as the Brussels neighborhood of Molenbeek, where authorities believe the Paris attacks were plotted.

The solution will require more than just taking action against radical communities or individuals, he explained, saying that authorities must also work on prevention and understand why certain trends are happening.


"They are our terrorists," he said. "They were born here, not in Syria. They went to our schools. They were supposed to be part of our society. But now they fight the free and open society. This is a difficult question. And there is no silver bullet answer to this."

Related: Islamic State Claims Responsibility for the Brussels Metro and Airport Bombings

Typically thought of as a safe country — it is home to the headquarters of the European Union — Belgium's security measures are quite moderate, with politicians largely able to walk around without security staff. But that might no longer be the case.

"We've always sometimes thought Belgium was too boring to be a focus of terrorist activities," De Croo said.

"Obviously it's a huge blow to our society and to European society," he added. "This is a shock, this is by far I think the darkest stage we've had in Belgium since almost the second World War."

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Watch Alexander De Croo Speak About Privacy and Secrecy in the Digital Age at the Davos Open Forum 2016: