EU facial recognition

Police and secret services can currently search facial images only in individual EU Member States. The EU wants to change that

The European Union wants to make it much easier for police to cross-check facial images. In the future, it will be possible to compare search photos with corresponding databases in all member states. Such a search could be carried out with still images from surveillance cameras in order to identify an unknown person. At present, each country in the EU must be contacted individually for this purpose.

The relevant facial image databases are usually held by police authorities. In Germany, this is the police information system INPOL, which is maintained at the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) for all German police departments. More than four million searchable photographs are currently stored there, many of them from police measures after an arrest.

The European expansion of facial recognition will be regulated by the Prüm Treaty, which defines the cooperation to combat terrorism, cross-border crime and migration classified as illegal. The agreement was initiated by the German Interior Ministry under Wolfgang Schäuble in 2005 and signed in Prüm, a small town in the Eifel region. Originally set up as an intergovernmental regulation of individual governments, the treaty was transferred into the EU legal framework in 2008 under the name „Prüm Decisions“ and can therefore be used by all member states.

In the field of biometrics, the Prüm decisions are currently limited to DNA data and fingerprints. The extension to facial images is known as the „Next Generation Prüm“. This also simplifies the possibilities for passing on more information about the persons concerned. A query of biometric data takes place in the so-called hit/no hit procedure: Police or secret services can find out whether data on DNA traces, fingerprints or facial images are available in another country. In order to obtain more details, the authorities must submit a request to the competent authority of the other country. This exchange of personal data is to be made more efficient. There are also plans to introduce standardised data formats.

The „Next Generation Prüm“ project is being promoted by the Council of the European Union and thus by the Member States. The plans are also supported by the EU Commission. The Commission is currently conducting a feasibility study to investigate how the existing capabilities can be further expanded. The contract was awarded to the consulting firm Deloitte and the results will be published in November. In response to a parlamentarian question, the German Federal Ministry of the Interior has now provided information on the interim results of the study. Accordingly, Deloitte also advises to extend the Prüm decisions to further data categories. The exchange is also to be further automated and integrated into existing measures of the EU Commission. The project called „Interoperability“ is named, in which the EU is currently merging all databases containing biometric data.

The planned cross-border retrieval of facial images must be regulated by law with new „Prüm Decisions“. This would also define technical procedures for implementation. The EU Commission is therefore funding research into the new EU facial recognition system with half a million euros. Under the direction of the Estonian Ministry of Justice, police forensic departments from Finland, Latvia, Sweden and the Netherlands are examining technical procedures in the TELEFI project („Towards the European Level Exchange of Facial Images“). With a duration of 18 months, the project is comparatively short, results should be available as early as next summer.

Autor: Matthias Monroy

Knowledge worker, activist, editor of the German civil rights journal Bürgerrechte & Polizei/CILIP.