EU: "Eliminating blind spots": customs data could be checked against SIS and Europol under interoperability plans

EU: "Eliminating blind spots": customs data could be checked against SIS and Europol under interoperability plans

Plans to join up the EU's databases and information systems in the field of policing and migration are well underway, with the European Parliament and the Council having recently reached agreement on the basic rules for the "interoperability" initiative.

Now officials are discussing a new report on the "interoperability of security and border management systems with customs systems" which proposes interconnections between a new EU-wide customs database, the Schengen Information System (SIS) and Europol data.

See: NOTE from: Commission services to: Delegations: Assessment report of practitioners - Interoperability of security and border management systems with customs systems (5574/19, LIMITE, 29 January 2019, pdf)

New customs database brings new opportunities

The EU Advance Cargo Information System (ICS2) is currently in development and a phased introduction is supposed to start replacing the existing ICS from 2021 onwards.

This system "will cover all goods intended to enter or pass through the EU customs territory (including transit, transhipment, import)," and is described in a recent report distributed by the Commission services as a sort of PNR (Passenger Name Record) system that deals with goods, rather than air passengers, and the "starting point (opportunity) for interoperability".

The report, drawn up by "an expert group with practitioners bringing together relevant operational knowledge and experiences on security, border management and customs operations," explains that:

"The objective of interoperability between customs and JHA systems is thus to contribute to eliminating blind spots in order to help customs and other law enforcement authorities improving detection and prevention of security and safety risks linked with goods and persons moving across external borders."

It makes clear that "ICS2 will play a central role" in any future customs-related interoperability scenario, as:

"it is the only repository that has a central overall view of the goods that are entering from third countries into the EU, and this on a real time basis, which makes it for the moment the most suitable system for interoperability with JHA systems."

Customs-JHA interoperability

How could this and other customs systems interact with justice and home affairs (JHA) databases? Regarding the Schengen Information System (SIS):

"The experts concluded that it would be useful to crosscheck the relevant data in ICS2 and SIS in an automated and systematic way in order to ensure that all currently available and relevant information is fully exploited to enhance the external border protection and internal security."

It would also be "useful to compare relevant Europol data with ICS2 data because this can enhance the intelligence picture for both law enforcement and customs authorities and can trigger actions of preventive or investigative nature."

Other systems - Eurodac, PNR (Passenger Name Record), VIS (Visa Information System), EES (Entry/Exit System) and ETIAS (European Travel Information Authorisation System) - "would have had very limited use, if at all," given their "nature, set-up and/or purpose".

New data for the police

The report also notes that "direct access for law enforcement authorities to ICS2 data, could be of benefit for investigative purposes."

However, "this needs however rather a policy discussion and decision (with consequent legal implications) than a detailed technical feasibility assessment."

Next steps

The next step for this process is for the Commission to use the report to "further orient the substance of [a] feasibility study" which will "explore further any technical, operational or legal aspects, including potential hurdles, problems and restrictions as - among others - data protection implications."

The Commission apparently also agreed that "a discussion should take place to examine the conditions under which other law enforcement authorities could be granted access to ICS2 data for investigative purposes on a duly justified case-by case basis."

The report was discussed by the Council's Standing Committee on Operational Cooperation on Internal Security (COSI) on 21 February 2019, where national officials "welcomed the presentation by the Commission" and noted the forthcoming feasibility study.

Background

The report explains that:

"EU information systems for security, border and migration management in the JHA area support controls of persons at external borders or within the EU territory. They are aimed at ensuring effective border and migration management and at preserving a high level of internal security within the EU. Information systems in the customs domain collect and contain information on goods crossing the EU external borders, including on economic operators and persons involved in offences linked to security risks... Currently, customs and JHA information systems are not interoperable. This leads to blind spots at both sides." (emphasis in original)

The report was drawn up by "practitioners" - that is, "staff from the relevant Commission services and agencies (Europol, Frontex) together with customs officials from several member states, police and border enforcement" - and aims to identify "potential added-value of cross-checking relevant goods and persons' data or information without looking into technical, operational or legal aspects."

The idea to pursue "interoperability" between customs and other databases and information systems was raised in the final report of the High-Level Expert Group on Information Systems and Interoperability, published in May 2017, and has since been endorsed in a number of other policy papers.

Further reading

Statewatch Observatory: Creation of a centralised Justice & Home Affairs database is "a point of no return"

 

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