Four years ago, the German parliament passed a Passenger Data Act, and since then, more and more travellers have been dragnetted. Federal police and customs take over „follow-up measures“.
German police authorities processed around 212 million passenger data last year. Corrected for double counting, this concerned about 63 million travellers at German commercial airports. The figures come from the Federal Ministry of the Interior’s answer to a parliamentary question.
Compared to 2020, the numbers have more than doubled. At that time, a good 100 million data records from around 31 million passengers were processed in cross-border civil air traffic. In 2019, one year after the start of the system, the figures were about a third lower.
Central office at the Criminal Police Office
Four years ago, the Bundestag implemented the EU PNR Directive adopted in 2016 and passed an Air Passenger Data Act to this end. Airlines are obliged to pass on passenger data to the Federal Office of Administration, which operates an information system for this purpose with over 250 employees. An automatic matching system developed by the Federal Criminal Police Office at a cost of several million euros is running there.
The PNR data is then analysed in the Passenger Information Unit (PIU), which in Germany is located at the Federal Criminal Police Office. There, they are checked against various police databases. These regularly include the German INPOL file, the Schengen Information System, and in individual cases also files at Europol.
If the system finds a suitable data record, it is then checked manually. At the PIU, this is initially referred to as a „technical hit“. Last year, around 108,000 people were screened in this way, which is also stated in the answer of the ministry. In the pandemic year 2020, this number was around 78,000.
88 per cent false alarms
In the PIU, the hits are first „depersonalised“. The personal data, which is actually anonymous, is made visible to the person processing it.
In a considerable number of cases, however, the data records are false alarms. In 2019, around 98 per cent of all „technical hits“ were discarded as unusable, in 2020 it was 93 per cent. In 2021, the figure fell to 88 percent.
False hits are caused, for example, by similar spellings of the traveller’s name or first name or a missing date of birth. In the past, different writing systems and the transcription procedure of the BKA software also caused problems.
Increase despite pandemic
All „technically positively verified hits“ are reported to the Federal Police and the Federal Customs Administration. The two authorities are then to take over the verification or prosecution of the persons. Other European PIUs can also be informed about suspicious persons.
In 2020, the BKA reported a total of 25,280 PNR records to the Federal Police Headquarters for „follow-up measures“. Despite the significant decline in passenger numbers due to the pandemic, this was an increase of around 132 per cent compared to the previous year, according to the Federal Police. Figures for 2021 are not yet known.
In 2020, 813 warrants were subsequently executed. A further 547 „hits on persons“ had been established „with reference to politically motivated crime“. The Federal Police does not say what „follow-up measures“ were taken as a result.
Reserves also used for „searches“
PNR data contain up to 60 individual items of data, including address, telephone number, travel route, booked seat, booked meal and booked hotel room. They are retained for up to five years. It is possible to use them for the prosecution and prevention of serious and terrorist offences. Although this is not regulated in the law, the Federal Police also uses PNR data to pursue irregular immigration.
The travellers‘ data can also be searched manually. In 2019, the BKA still made 684 „domestic search requests“ in it; this number quadrupled by 2021. Search requests from PIUs of other EU member states are also increasing every year.
There are repeated calls to extend the PNR system to cross-border rail, bus or ship travel. In conclusions, the EU member states commissioned an impact assessment on this three years ago. Subsequently, the EU Commission had also examined the expansion of the PNR system. Most recently, the agencies Frontex and Europol expressed a proposal to include cruise ships and ferries.