Brussels, 08 February 2019. While Brussels politicos spent yet another day thrashing about the future form of Brexit amid today’s visit from British Prime Minister Theresa May, the EU Council quietly announced this week that it has reached preliminary agreement with the European Parliament on interoperable information systems in justice and home affairs.
The very blandness of the Council’s press release hides the importance of the agreement reached. The focus is of course the perennial security threat – the intention is to detect potential terrorists. The Romanian Council Presidency said today, “To make sure we detect those who pose a security threat or who are lying about their identity, competent authorities carrying out checks need to have a full picture of the person in front of them.”
What will this mean in practice? More comprehensive datasets on individuals will provide EU border-control officials with a detailed picture of each individual stood in front of them at an EU border. The rationale presented by the EU Council and Commission is that this interoperability meets the threats from terrorism and migration and will only affect non-EU nationals.
So all well and good, you might think. As we travel within the European Union, we can be reassured that law-enforcement authorities are delivering on their duty to ensure the safety of EU citizens.
But, and it is a big but, the Council and the Security Commissioner have made clear that any new centralised database will include all new and existing databases. So the contents of the EU PNR (Passenger Name Record) will be incorporated, as will those of the Prüm database (DNA, fingerprints and vehicle registrations of EU nationals).
In effect, the new datasets will apply to EU citizens as well as those from other countries. But this is unavoidable, you might say. Maybe, but is it really the sign of a healthy democracy to make every detail of each individual’s life and liberties available to every border control official? As far as I can tell, there are no ‘layered rights’ of access to knowledge contained within these future datasets, which means every lowly customs official or border-force officer will know everything about you.
It is kind of difficult to have an interesting or enjoyable life, when you consider that every incident and mistake made when you were in your teens or twenties will be available for just about everyone with any kind of official access to data, right up until the time you die. Really makes a mockery of the concept of personal privacy.
Imagine the scene. So, you have a few speeding fines do you? And what about that time when, drunk, you jumped on the roof of that woman’s car? And you joined those climate-protest marches ten years ago when all the windows were broken in the financial district! Oh dear oh dear, it does seem as if you’re not too responsible a citizen doesn’t it! Perhaps we should keep a closer eye on your activities. Here, I think it would be a good idea to wear this electronic bracelet from now on …. oh yes, we are always polite ….
Such a future scenario is not in my opionion all that far-fetched. Those with a ‘past’ could find themselves facing similar situations repeatedly, every time they wish to travel abroad. Certainly it would make them disinclined to travel – easier by far to stay within EU borders.
Simply handing over access to all personal data to officialdom, with no attempt being made, as far as I can see, to establish any kind of heirarchy of officialdom or departments able to access it, will bring an inevitable deadening effect on freedom of movement. More, it will have a deadening effect on democracy itself – all deviations from what is considered ‘the norm’ will be logged and available for all to see. And a future behavioural ‘norm’ could be whatever the administration of the time decides it should be. Orwell’s nightmares are still valid.
But it is an ill wind that blows nobody any good. Comprehensive future official databases could well give rise to a new type of industry – a personal ‘data washing’ service for those wealthy enough to afford it – the kind of data cleaning able to fudge the fields in official databases and present the future ‘Mr Norm’, with all his faults and errors of judgement, as the much more acceptable ‘Ms Clean’, who has never done anything wrong in her life. And yes, it could probably data-wash your sex as well.
Travel abroad? Me? I think I’d rather stay at home ….
The European Data Protection Supervisor has said in his Opinion: “Interoperability is not primarily a technical choice, it is in particular a political choice to be made. Against the backdrop of the clear trend to mix distinct EU law and policy objectives (i.e. border checks, asylum and immigration, police cooperation and now also judicial cooperation in criminal matters) as well as granting law enforcement routine access to non-law enforcement databases, the decision of the EU legislator to make large-scale IT systems interoperable would not only permanently and profoundly affect their structure and their way of operating, but would also change the way legal principles have been interpreted in this area so far and would as such mark a “point of no return”. For these reasons, the EDPS calls for a wider debate on the future of the EU information exchange, their governance and the ways to safeguard fundamental rights in this context.”
© Philip Hunt, 2019.