For the second time, the German Federal Criminal Police Office is leading an EU pilot project that aims to enable cross-border queries of police files. This could affect not only police suspects but also their associates or victims. The Federal Ministry of the Interior has been pursuing the project since the German EU Presidency in 2007.
With the German EU Presidency soon to end, the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) is one step closer to its goal of networking police forces in EU member states in a new information system. Within the framework of a „European Police Record Index System“ (EPRIS), the police in all participating states are to be able to query registers on persons against whom criminal investigations are on file. With such a system, it could be determined whether data exists in the police databases of another state.
Since February, the BKA has been leading an EU project that is testing the use of this EPRIS for the second time within a year. The police from France, Belgium, Ireland, the Netherlands, Spain and Hungary as well as Europol are involved. Partners from the private sector are the German consulting company PD and the Berlin Fraunhofer Institute FOKUS.
Technical solution from Germany
In an initial pilot project, the participants had first tested a technical solution for the EPRIS. A software „Automation of Data Exchange Processes“ (ADEP) developed by the BKA and Fraunhofer was used. The BKA received the necessary funding from the EU Commission through the Internal Security Fund (ISF). Cross-border tests were then carried out in the context of actual police service traffic.
An EPRIS query to all participating police departments is done in a hit/no hit procedure, where first the existence of a record is checked. Subsequently, an existing file can be requested through the regular channels for mutual legal assistance among EU Member States. According to the German Federal Ministry of the Interior, the queries in ADEP are pseudonymised. Data fields are the family name, first name, aliases, date of birth and gender.
In the second pilot project, which will end in March 2021, the software and individual processes are now to be improved. The BKA is soliciting participation from other member states and preparing the EPRIS for regular operation. The current decentralised system would then be supplemented with a central server, via which the queries would be forwarded to all participants.
EU wide solution would require a legal act
However, a legal act is needed to establish EPRIS at EU level. Before that, the Commission would have to carry out an impact assessment. This would also have to examine the role of Europol. One of the proposals is that in the case of „hits“, corresponding data on the suspected or accused persons should also be transmitted to the Europol information system.
First, however, it would have to be determined for which purposes the EPRIS is to be used. The EU Commission had already commissioned a feasibility study for this in 2012. According to the study, a large majority of the EU member states surveyed were in favour of using the queries also for suspects in criminal investigations. This could affect not only the alleged perpetrators, but also their associates, according to a then clear majority.
Less than half of the states surveyed were in favour of also querying the data of victims with the help of an EPRIS, some also wanted to query witnesses. Three quarters of all respondents were also in favour of automatic comparison. Whenever a person is brought into a criminal investigation, a consultation of all other member states would take place.
Study calls plans too expensive
First, the EU interior ministers had dealt with the creation of an EU-wide criminal records system in 2004. In 2007, the then German government called for a corresponding legal framework during its EU Presidency and has since spoken out several times in favour of a feasibility study.
The proposal to change the abbreviation of the planned register from „CRIS“ to „EPRIS“ because of its possible confusion with the „European Criminal Records Information System“ (ECRIS) also came from Germany. On the initiative of the then Minister of the Interior, Wolfgang Schäuble (CDU), the project finally ended up in the „Stockholm Programme“ in 2009, in which the EU set police priorities for the following five years.
However, the study commissioned by the Commission came to the conclusion that an EPRIS would be too expensive. Instead, other tools such as the Europol Information System (EIS), the Schengen Information System (SIS II), the SIENA communication system at Europol and the exchange of information via the Prüm network should be „fully“ used or improved.
EPRIS initially among voluntary members?
On Germany’s initiative, a handful of states had initially started to compare data with the Prüm Treaty in 2005. In the Prüm decisions, all EU member states allow themselves since 2008 to query DNA data and fingerprints. According to the plans of the EU interior ministers, this will soon also apply to facial images.
As in 2007, the German government has now attempted to use its presidency of the Council of the European Union to push for an EU-wide EPRIS. On the initiative of the Federal Ministry of the Interior, the Justice and Home Affairs Council adopted „Conclusions on Internal Security and European Police Partnership“ on 14 December, in which the EPRIS is mentioned. However, the wording of the first draft of the conclusions was controversial.
Originally, the German ministry, after 16 years, now wanted to make the introduction of an EPRIS definitive („is introduced“). However, the passage in the conclusions was changed to a recital („could be considered“) after other member states intervened. Now individual governments are considering starting an EPRIS first among voluntary states, as in the Prüm procedure, and only later establishing it at the EU level.