EU database: European domestic secret services increasingly hunt abroad

50,000 people are under secret surveillance throughout Europe by the French police, another 50,000 are to be checked during routine police operations or when crossing the EU border. In the field of secret services, this wanted list is headed by Germany. Requests for such clandestine observation can also come from third countries.

More than 1,500 persons are being observed by the German secret service with the help of the Schengen Information System (SIS II) throughout Europe, the German Federal Ministry of the Interior writes in an overview. Entries are made by the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), which is the leading office in the field of clandestine observations in Europe. Secret services in France and Great Britain have each issued alerts for slightly less than 1,500 persons, Sweden 625, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic around 500.

The SIS II has been used for 25 years by border, police, customs and immigration authorities as well as secret services from 26 EU Member States including Iceland, Norway, Liechtenstein and Switzerland. Last year, almost one million people were wanted from these countries in the SIS II, for example, with a European arrest warrant or for missing persons. However, most entries concern persons who are subject to an entry ban after their deportation. Article 36 of the SIS II Council Decision covers with 168,000 in total a relatively large proportion of these one million, and the number is increasing significantly every year.

Discreet reporting to the issuing authority

If the persons issued for „discreet check“ are found in the Schengen area during a routine police check or when crossing an EU external border, no arrest or check shall be carried out. Instead, they are discreetly observed by the police during the procedure. Afterwards, they are reported to the authority that entered the alert. In this way, the German domestic secret service receives information about the whereabouts and travel route of the persons concerned, but also about the means of transport used and fellow travellers.

Discreet checks by the secret services in accordance with Article 36 are permitted in paragraph 3 of the SIS II Council Decision. It is also possible to issue an alert for so-called specific checks. The persons concerned are then spoken to, checked and if necessary searched. Not all secret services are allowed to do this. The German Federal Office of Criminal Investigation, for example, may not make use of it, as this would run counter to the principle that German secret services may not hold police powers of attorney. The overview shows that mainly services from Italy use the method. There, almost 3,900 persons are put out to tender for open inspections, in France about 1,000.

Warrants by French police tripled

However, the Article 36 search is used to a much greater extent by police authorities, which are subject to paragraph 2 of the SIS II Council Decision. In Germany, federal and state police forces may use the measure for averting danger and for criminal prosecution. With 2,810 entries, the German police are in the middle of the European field; police searches using the SIS II are mainly used by France. There, more than 100,000 persons are listed in Article 36, half of them for observation and half for specific checks. This number has tripled since 2018.

Many of the entries made by German police and secret services for surveillance purposes are presumably based on findings of „partner services“ from third countries. For example, secret services from Western Balkan countries or the USA send lists of people who are supposed to be connected with terrorism. This accusation cannot be verified by the European authorities, yet hundreds of them end up in the European database simply because of these foreign tip-offs. However, the SIS II regulations allow the storage of persons only under strict conditions.

German authorities received „larger data sets“

The European Union now wants to facilitate this third country procedure. This is because people are often entered by several SIS II participants at the same time and sometimes with different spellings. In future, the police agency Europol could therefore receive the lists from third countries and look for willing European cooperation authorities. In a pilot project, the Czech Republic and Italy are already making such entries for third countries. Presumably authorities from Germany are also involved in this project. However, all details of this are top secret, as the German government believes that they violate the „Third Party Rule“. This means a common practice in secret service circles, according to which information originating from foreign partners is not disclosed to national members of parliament.

After years of controversy over the German interpretation of the „Third Party Rule“, several critical Bundestag assessments and a further complaint by the Left Parliamentary Group, the Interior Ministry has now admitted that German authorities are also feeding the SIS II with information from third countries. Earlier this month, Parliamentary State Secretary Günter Krings wrote that the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, the Federal Criminal Police Office and the Federal Police „have received correspondingly larger data sets in the past“. It remains unclear, however, whether these originate from US police or secret service authorities as presumed.

Image: MI5 in London („Where the spooks are…“ by Menage a Moi is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 ).

Autor: Matthias Monroy

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