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15th Aug 2022

EU vows to mend terrorist data share failures

  • Paris attacker Salah Abdeslam slipped by French police following the attacks after Belgian authorities failed to issue the proper alerts into an EU-wide police database (Photo: Eric Maurice)

The European Commission is promoting another set of measures to crack down on terrorism and crime as part of its so-called security union.

A trio of EU commissioners on Wednesday (21 December) said the latest legislative proposals will "strengthen", "reinforce", and "improve" efforts to fight terrorism financing and make an EU-wide law enforcement database, known as the Schengen information system (SIS), even better.

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Similar statements were issued in 2012 when the commission announced plans for police access to Eurodac, an EU asylum database, touted as indispensable in the wider struggle against terrorism and serious crime.

But four years later and the results, according to a report by an EU agency eu-Lisa, are questionable.

Almost 42,000 fingerprint data sets, due in part to "poor quality" and other errors, had to be re-requested by EU states in the last six months of 2015 alone at the height of the refugee and migration crisis.

The law enforcement agencies of only five EU states, over the same period, had bothered querying Eurodac for a grand total of 95 times.

The database is supposed to help identify and send people with no legal rights to remain in the EU back to their home countries. Plans are underway to include facial imagery.

EU security commissioner Julian King told reporters in Brussels that "we are only as a strong as our weakest database."

Asked if he was referring to Eurodac, King said there are outstanding issues, including "technological access", data quality, and data protection standards, among the different EU-level databases.

"We are addressing those issues in a series of meetings with the member states and the member state authorities," he said.

Abdeslam and SIS

Salah Abdeslam, one of the terrorist attackers in Paris, had managed to slip by French police hours after the attacks because Belgian authorities had failed to fully register his details into SIS.

He was held for 30 minutes by the French, but then released. Belgium had only entered data on his criminal past but neglected to also input his links to militant Islam.

SIS, first launched in 1995, is increasingly used by law authorities throughout the EU's passport-free Schengen states, Norway, Iceland, Switzerland, and Liechtenstein, however.

SIS real-time alerts help police nab wanted people, find others who are missing, and locate stolen objects.

According to the European Commission, it led to 25,000 arrests, located 12,000 missing persons, and found "72,000 travelling serious criminals" between April 2013 and the end of 2015.

Britain's National Crime Agency has also described it "as an absolute game-changer for the UK" even at a restricted level given that full access is reserved for Schengen states.

The system was accessed 2.9 billion times last year, a 1 billion increase from 2014.

But there are also problems, as highlighted by Abdeslam's quick getaway from French police in November last year.

EU migration commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulous, in a statement, vowed to avoid future Abdeslam repeats.

"In the future, no critical information should ever be lost on potential terrorist suspects or irregular migrants crossing our external borders," he said.

The issue was raised in an EU commission evaluation report, which says the system is riddled with poor quality data. "When creating alerts, member states sometimes enter incorrect or incomplete data," notes the report.

The latest plan now aims to expand the database to include alerting police of people who are banned from entering the EU. Police will also have to enter return decisions into the database and on anyone suspected of a terrorist offence.

New category

Another category of "unknown wanted persons" will also be added. More biometric data is also planned, including facial images and DNA of missing people.

That information is stored until it is no longer of use or up to five years. The EU says data retention periods do not apply because it concerns people already flagged as either criminals or suspects.

The EU's data protection supervisor Giovanni Buttarelli already issued a warning on the topic earlier this year.

"Border management and law enforcement are distinct objectives and need to be more clearly distinguished. Refugees, asylum seekers, illegal immigrants and ordinary travellers may require separate considerations," he said.

The vast database, maintained by eu-Lisa, has not been compromised by hacker attacks, noted the Brussels-executive.

EU tightens money laundering rules

Banks will now have 48 hours to freeze assets in accounts spread across Europe flagged as belonging to people aiming to use it for terrorist operations.

May: London attacker was known to the police

The British prime minister said "we are not afraid" after the terrorist attack on Wednesday that left four people dead. Eight arrests have been made, while the Islamist attacker seems to have carried out the attack alone.

EU parliament groups want inquiry into terror failures

The centre-right EPP and liberal Alde want EU state intelligence and police services to explain how people known to them were still able to commit terror attacks. The two groups are proposing a special committee.

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