Names of national authorities that drafted "interoperability" plans published following Statewatch complaint
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The names of the authorities that made up the EU high-level expert group on information systems and interoperability, which was responsible for outlining the plans that have led to the interconnection of EU policing and migration databases, have been published by the European Commission following a successful complaint by Statewatch.
The high-level expert group (HLEG) was convened in June 2016 with a remit to develop "a joint strategy to make data management in the Union more effective and efficient, in full respect of data protection requirements, to better protect its external borders and to enhance its internal security."
What has emerged are the soon-to-be-adopted proposals on interoperability, which will see controversial interconnections between existing and future databases such as Eurodac, the Visa Information System (VIS) and the Entry/Exit System, as well as the creation of new systems such as the 'Central Identity Repository', containing vast numbers of biometric and biographic details on non-EU nationals.
Statewatch submitted to a complaint to the European Ombudsman, arguing that the European Commission had failed to meet a requirement in the Decision establishing the HLEG that the names of Member States' authorities involved in the group be published.
The Ombudsman's decision in the case (pdf) states:
"Following the intervention of the Ombudsman, the Commission acknowledged that the complainants arguments were correct. The decision establishing the HLEG does indeed require the names of the participating national authorities to be published in the register of expert groups when the HLEG was created. Due to an administrative oversight, this provision was not taken into account when handling the complainants request for access to documents."
The publication of those names could have assisted interested individuals or groups to request information from national governments on their roles and tasks in the HLEG, which would have assisted in public understanding of the complex, confusing and controversial interoperability initiative.
While it may be too late for any significant public discussion on the issue - the European Parliament is set to vote on the final text of the two key interoperability Regulations at the end of this month - the release of the names of the authorities involved demonstrates just how significant the role of national interior ministries has been in propelling the plans forward.
Every single national authority involved in the HLEG (pdf) was an interior or justice ministry, which perhaps helps explain why the proposals have been so heavily criticised by EU and national data protection authorities. The desire for police and law enforcement authorities to have access to more data often runs counter to the demands of privacy rights and data protection law, which require minimal and fully-justified data processing operations.
Statewatch filed a complaint with the European Ombudsman after making an access to documents request with the European Commission, which stated that it did not possess a list of the names of the authorities involved in the HLEG and was under no obligation to produce one.
When it was pointed out by the Ombudsman that the Commission was in fact obliged to produce such a list, due to provisions in the rules of procedure governing the HLEG, the Commission duly did so - although it took over six months to respond to the Ombudsman.
In a similar recent case, the European Network Against Arms Trade (ENAAT) won a complaint against the European Commission for failing to subject a high-level group that set out EU military research policy to appropriate transparency obligations.
The Commission has now committed to ensuring any future such groups work transparently. However, the fact that it failed to do so in the first place, and did not meet an obligation set out in the HLEG's founding decision until placed under pressure, shows that dedicated work by independent organisations and committed individuals is necessary to ensure that high-level decision-making cannot be carried out in secret.
The list of authorities: EU High-level Expert Group on Information Systems and Interoperability: Member State and third-country authorities (pdf)
Comments of the Commission on a request for information from the European Ombudsman - Complaint by Mr Chris JONES, ref. 1276/2018/EWM (pdf)
European Ombudsman, Decision in case 1276/2018/FP on the European Commissions alleged failure to disclose the names of the national authorities participating in the High-Level Expert Group on Information System and Interoperability (pdf)
Statewatch Observatory: Creation of a centralised Justice & Home Affairs database is "a point of no return"
High-Level Expert Group on Information Systems and Interoperability (European Commission, link)
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