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EU: Law enforcement authorities to gain access to European visa database on 1 September
03 July 2013
The EU's policing agency Europol and law enforcement authorities of states that are part of the Schengen area of free movement look set to be able to access information held in the EU's Visa Information System (VIS) from 1 September onwards, potentially giving them access to vast amounts of personal information and biometric data.
The Council's Law Enforcement Working Party has proposed that a Decision permitting access to the VIS for Europol and law enforcement authorities be approved on 1 August, with it coming into effect one month later on 1 September, "in order to allow for national procedures to be completed." 
Following that date, national authorities and Europol will be able to access information held in the VIS, which is used for the processing and storage of short-stay visa applications, if they can prove it is necessary for the prevention, detection or investigation of terrorist offences or other serious criminal offences; if it is necessary in a specific case; and if there are reasonable grounds to believe that consultation of data in the VIS will "substantially contribute to the prevention, detection or investigation of any of the criminal offences in question." 
Information taken from short-stay visa applicants includes names, nationality, travel document details, intended destination and duration of stay, fingerprints, photographs, intended residence and purpose of travel, amongst other things. State agencies that will be given access include police forces, immigration offices, foreign affairs ministries, justice ministries, and security services. 
Neither the UK nor Ireland, although they take part in some aspects of the Schengen system, will be party to the new arrangements. Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland, which are non-EU Schengen states, will participate, and Denmark is due to decide on whether to participate or not within six months of the adoption of the Decision.
By 6 May this year around 2.9 million visa applications had been processed through the VIS. 2.4 million visas were issued and 348,000 were refused. A Commission report notes that "the main issue of concern remains the mid to long-term effect of a non-optimal quality of data (both biometric and alphanumeric) introduced by the consular authorities of Member States into the VIS," a statement that may concern privacy and data protection advocates - what if a police force or law enforcement authority decides to act upon information held in the VIS that is inaccurate?
By the end of 2013 the VIS will be in operation in Africa, the Near East and the Gulf, South America, Central and South-East Asia, and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. According to the Commission, "the sequence and possibly the dates of deployment for the remaining regions are being discussed with Member States and will be decided in the coming months." 
Data protection supervisor's warning on EU police information exchange and interoperable databases, Statewatch News Online, May 2013
European police to gain access to visa database, Statewatch News Online, April 2013
Schengen stalls, Prüm ploughs on: fingerprint, DNA and vehicle registration data exchange networks continue to expand, Statewatch News Online, April 2013
Schengen Information System (SIS II) goes live, Statewatch News Online, April 2013
 Law Enforcement Working Party, Outcome of proceedings, 10324/13, 10 June 2013; Draft Council Decision fixing the date of effect of Decision 2008/633/JHA concerning access for consultation of the Visa Information System (VIS) by designated authorities of Member States and by Europol for the purposes of the prevention, detection and investigation of terrorist offences and of other serious criminal offences, 9239/13, 8 May 2013; and 9239/1/13 REV 1, 19 June 2013
 Council Decision 2008/633/JHA of 23 June 2008 concerning access for consultation of the Visa Information System (VIS) by designated authorities of Member States and by Europol for the purposes of the prevention, detection and investigation of terrorist offences and of other serious criminal offences
 List of competent authorities the duly authorised staff of which shall have access to enter, amend, delete or consult data in the Visa Information System (VIS) (2012/C 79/05)
 European Commission,
Third biannual report on the functioning of the Schengen area 1 November 2012 - 30 April 2013, COM(2013) 326 final, 31 May 2013