More than half of all searches in the Schengen Information System now take place without human intervention. A striking increase has been observed since 2018. Many Schengen members have introduced number plate recognition during this time.
Automatic queries in the Schengen Information System (SIS II) have been increasing sharply in recent years. This is confirmed by the European Agency for the operational management of large-scale IT systems (eu-LISA) in its answer to a written question by MEP Cornelia Ernst. According to this, the agency records a total of 8,350 billion automated searches for the year 2022, about twice as many as in the previous year. In 2018, it was still 1.871 billion. Automated searches are becoming increasingly important overall and currently account for 65% of all reported searches, eu-LISA says, up from 31% in 2019.
In the SIS II, the 27 current full members of the Schengen Agreement can put persons and objects (including vehicles, boats, aircraft, weapons, documents) on a wanted list. Covert searches or checks are also possible, whereby persons encountered during a police check are reported to an interested authority without their knowledge. Eu-LISA is responsible for the technical and organisational operation of the system and also produces regular statistics. At the end of 2022, the SIS II contained around one million alerts on persons and over 86 million on objects, according to the agency’s latest annual report.
Permission only since November 2018
Automatically processed searches in the SIS II take place without human intervention, so operations such as querying a passport at a police checkpoint or applying for an ID card at a public authority are not part of this. The growth in automated searches is likely to be generated mainly by automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) systems, as they are increasingly used in EU countries. When a vehicle drives past a police or customs number plate scanner, the system sends a request to the SIS II. In the event of a hit, officers are notified and follow-up action is taken.
Queries using ANPR are only possible with the new SIS regulations that came into force in November 2018. According to the relevant regulation, this applies to “vehicle registration certificates and vehicle number plates which have been stolen, misappropriated, lost or invalidated or purport to be such a document or plate but are false”. According to eu-LISA’s annual report, 4.5 million number plates are currently registered in the system.
The Agency does not have its own figures on automated queries, but relies on reports from the Member States to collect the annual data. In the answer to the Written Question, eu-LISA only writes: “in the automated searches there are the ANPR searches but not only”.
First deployments by the German Federal Police
The German government also does not collect its own figures on automated number plate recognition, confirms the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) in response to a parlamentarian question. In addition, the systems are mainly used by state police forces. Since June 2022, however, the Federal Police has also been testing the new search technology “with a small number of cameras”. Corresponding devices will be used by the its headquarters in Munich, Stuttgart and Sankt Augustin “on an ad hoc basis”, writes the Federal Ministry of the Interior in its answer to another question by a parlamentarian.
In 2022, 23 “search hits” were achieved through ANPR by the Federal Police. The main focus of the deployment was “the prevention of criminal offences of considerable importance, the defence against current dangers as well as the search for criminals”. The Federal Police had mainly detected vehicles that had been reported in search systems “for theft and fraud offences or in connection with narcotics or weapons offences”.
The use of the systems in Germany is legally possible after corresponding legal foundations were created in the Federal Police Act in 2017 and in the Code of Criminal Procedure in 2021. According to a decision of the Federal Constitutional Court, however, police officers must comply with strict requirements regarding proportionality. This is because the recording of number plates and the comparison with wanted persons files represents an encroachment on the fundamental right to informational self-determination.
Criticism from the data protection commissioner
The Federal Data Protection Commissioner is responsible for the supervisory control of measures involving licence plate scanners by the Federal Police. “Since the persons concerned are regularly not informed about the implementation of the measure, my supervisory function is of particular importance,” writes the Commissioner Ulrich Kelber in his current report.
However, despite repeated requests at the Ministry of Interior and the police, Kelber has not been informed about the technology since 2020. A data protection impact assessment has also not been carried out. Instead, the Ministry had issued an “immediate order” for the use of the ANPR systems without prior consultation of the data protection commissioner. In Kelber’s view, however, there was no urgency for the measure “especially after the long lead time”.