Schengen Information System - SIS II: technical innovation a pretext for more data and more control

Statewatch bulletin, vol 11 no 1, Jan-Feb 2001

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Member states are using the construction of the "second generation SIS" not only to extend the capacity of the system, but also to introduce new technical and investigation possibilities.

First discussions on the present Schengen Information System were initiated in the late 1980's - at a time when the Schengen Implementation Agreement had not even been signed yet. In the SIS, all data is stored parallel, both in the central component in Strasbourg (C.SIS) and in national outlets (N.SIS). Thereby the C.SIS ensures the rapid transferal of alerts put in by one national SIRENE office to the other N.SIS. When the authorities carried out a feasibility study in 1988, they were far-sighted in that they predicted that apart from the then five Schengen members, more EU member states would join the club. The capacity of the system was therefore set at a level at which eight states could join the system. However, the planners were not far-sighted enough: when the SIS went online in March 1995, seven Schengen states were taking part - the five original ones (Germany, France, Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg) plus Spain and Portugal. By the end of 1996, when Italy, Austria and Greece joined the SIS, it was being questionnned whether the system's capacity was sufficient. After all, ten states, two more than originally planned, were taking part. More candidates were, and still are, waiting in line: the Nordic EU member states Sweden, Finland and Denmark as well as the non-EU states Norway and Iceland. For the latter, the system had already been extended (SIS 1+). Britain and Ireland are to receive partial participation in the SIS. And then there's the many EU accession states, who have (and want) to implement the whole of the Schengen acquis, including the SIS.

The Schengen Executive Committee therefore decided in late 1996 to extend the SIS to SIS II. Recent papers by the Council's SIS Working Group and the Mixed Committee (which includes Norway and Iceland) prove that this extension will not only serve increased capacities but is supposed to open up new technological "functionalities", which in turn necessitate amendments of the Schengen Agreement. "On the basis of the work carried out over several years by the SIRENE working party, which has studied the new functionalities planned within the framework of the SIS II", the French presidency presented "descriptive sheets" in July last year, from which can be derived the aims, operational interests as well as the technical, financial and legal effects of the planned amendments. In October last year, the SIS working group referred these recommendations to the Article 36 committee. Only Italy had a "general scrutiny reservation" and France declared a partial reservation against the increased storage time of personal data.

Longer storage times - more data

Until now, there was a general three year limit for the storage of personal data after which the inputting agencies had to check if the data was still necessary. The only exception to this rule were alerts under Article 99: in cases of discreet surveillance, personal records could only be stored for up to one year. This curtailed storage time took account of the fact that as a rule, there was no concrete evidence of criminal offences against the people subjected to surveillance. The precondition for surveillance is generally a police prognosis on the person in question being likely to commit a crime in future. Requests for surveillance could also be made by national secret intelligence agencies. These kinds of alerts are one of the most contested aspects of the Schengen Implementation Agreement, because they link police interventions, which are not (supposed to be) known to the affected persons, to a mere suspicion of danger - a typical political police praxis. With the temporal extension of data storage, initial concerns are thrown over board, without even pointing to possible expectations towards police efficiency. After all, these kind of alerts only concerns a relatively small percentage of personal records stored in the SIS.

In relation to Article 96 on the other hand (these are alerts referring to non-EU citizens issued with deportation orders or those to be rejected at the borders) we are talking of masses of data. The extension of the stipulated three year period will automatically imply an increase in the volume of data. Up to now, this category of alerts has represented the lion's share of person-specific SIS data (between 80 and 90%). The real implications of this are clearly indicated by the biggest deletion operation of SIS data. During the first 6 months of 1997, the German SIRENE deleted 207,000 Article 96 records from the SIS. The data concerned had been taken over from the German nation-wide investigative system INPOL when the SIS system first became active in 1995. However, the data had already been stored for at least a year in INPOL. In other words: the three year deadline had long expired. More than a third of this data category input by Germany at the time, had not become obsolete because of a "hit" but invalid through the expiry of the deadline. Although most of the hits in the SIS can be traced back to Article 96, it can safely be assumed that the overwhelming majority of this data is actually deleted on expiry grounds. The extension of the three year period will by no means lead to an automatic increase in apprehensions, but will merely bring about an increase in the mass of data.

Not only quantitative increases

SIS II is not only supposed to be accompanied by the extension of storage times and therefore the increase in person specific data held, but also by a qualitative change in the data input. Amongst other things, the SIS II will enhance the ability to give more references specific to persons into SIS records. Currently only references relating to firearms or possible violent behaviour were permitted. In future, the nature of the offence, as well as indications that the person is an escaped convict or "in psychological danger", will pop up on the screen of police computers.

So far, a record in the SIS did not include more than 2 lines worth of data, in other words: not more than the simple search entry. SIS 2 will thoroughly change this. From now on, photos, fingerprints and if necessary even DNA profiles will be included in the SIS personal records. The character of the system is therefore substantially changed. Up to now, the SIS has been used first and foremost by officers controlling entry at the borders and inland. In future, it will increasingly be police crime investigation units who are interested in the SIS. Further planned innovations are as follows:

New categories are to be created in the area of stolen property searches - for stolen art objects as well as boats and ships. The latter are also related to entries on surveillance under Article 99. This concerns, amongst others, boats and ships which are thought to be used for drugs transports or for "illegal immigration". The storage time for stolen cars is also to be extended.

The SIS, which up to now had rather simple search/inquiring capacities, is to get expanded search powers in its second generation, for the "officer on the spot". In the case of cars, this means that the officers can enter parts of the chassis number as search criterion, if the number is not fully recognisable. In the case of personal identification papers, the first name as well as the date of issue will serve as search criteria.

If the ideas of the working group are carried through, officers are to receive not only a single and limited answer to their query in the near future. Links are planned to be made between related entries, which will automatically bring a whole range of data (extradition orders for persons, related persons, vehicles under surveillance) on the screen.

Necessary changes to the agreement

The SIRENE working group has worked on these proposal for several years now, it says in the French presidency paper. What it has not done, is to tackle the question if the SIS as a whole has been a sensible achievement. The question of efficiency is not even posed under police criteria, let alone a societal criteria. It is simply assumed that more data and search possibilities will automatically lead to more "successes". It remains to be seen how the parliaments - the European as well as national ones - will view the new Schengen plans.

After all, the legal implementation will not run so smoothly, as many changes and additions to the Schengen agreement will be required. This implies a new protocol, which, just as the Schengen Agreement itself, will have to be ratified by the parliaments. Above anything else, this will take time. It can therefore be expected that the Council, next to the changes resulting from the SIS II project, will present additional extensions to the Schengen Agreement to parliaments. The German 1999 presidency, which was the last before the integration of the Schengen acquis into EU structures, has already said what it wants: an increase in the volume and facilitation of cross border observations, more controlled deliveries, use of undercover investigators etc. A new Schengen avalanche is rolling towards us, and the price we have to pay for it, is once more a piece of our freedom.

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