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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 26 Apr 2022

Vol. 1021 No. 1

Prüm II Proposal: Motion

I move:

That Dáil Éireann approves the exercise by the State of the option or discretion under Protocol No. 21 on the position of the United Kingdom and Ireland in respect of the area of freedom, security and justice annexed to the Treaty on European Union and to the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, to take part in the adoption and application of the following proposed measure:

Proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council on automated data exchange for police cooperation ("Prüm II"), amending Council Decisions 2008/615/JHA and 2008/616/JHA and Regulations (EU) 2018/1726, 2019/817 and 2019/818 of the European Parliament and of the Council,

a copy of which was laid before Dáil Éireann on 1st February, 2022.

The Prüm decisions, which this proposal seeks to update and improve, represent a cornerstone of European law enforcement information exchange. The Prüm decisions enhanced the crime-fighting capacity of our law enforcement agencies while respecting data rights by enabling member states, on a hit, no hit basis, automatically to search the law enforcement DNA, fingerprint and vehicle registration data of other member states with which they have established a Prüm connection. In our connected age, it is clear that peace, co-operation and effective law enforcement information exchange with our European partners are vital tools in our shared fight against crime.

Ireland put in several years of hard work and spent valuable resources on establishing our compliance with the Prüm decisions, which were transposed into Irish law via the Criminal Justice (Forensic Evidence and DNA Database System) Act of 2014 in respect of DNA and fingerprint co-operation, and the Vehicle Registration Data (Automated Searching and Exchange) Act of 2018. I know that if we were to choose not to opt into the new Prüm II proposal via either Article 3 or Article 4 of Protocol No. 21, we would not only miss out on the benefits of the new features contained in the proposal but our existing co-operation under the present Prüm decisions would come to an end. This is clearly not in the public interest and would undermine important measures to support public safety and security, weakening An Garda Síochána's capacity to respond to the increasingly dynamic criminal threats we face.

The new features of the proposal offer tangible improvements that Ireland should embrace. In respect of the new technical solution, the central router, this should greatly improve the breadth of our Prüm co-operation and the efficiency of that co-operation. At present, connections are made on a member state to member state basis, resulting in duplication of effort and expense. The central router will act as a message broker, and once connection is established with the central router, each member state will be connected to all other member states that have connected. Importantly, however, the central router will hold no data and member states will retain ownership and control of their own data.

The proposal also seeks to enhance co-operation by expanding the categories of data currently amenable to Prüm, namely, DNA, fingerprints and vehicle registration data, to include facial images and police records. With regard to facial images, I believe Ireland should support this extension. Identification of criminals is of vital importance for any successful criminal investigation and prosecution. There are occasions when the only lead captured in respect of a crime is an image of a suspect from a nearby security camera. An Garda Síochána has indicated in respect of a recent high-profile murder that had the awful crime been committed in a city rather than a relatively small town, it would almost certainly not have been able to identify the perpetrator through CCTV without the use of facial recognition.

The proposal also seeks to expand Prüm co-operation to police records as part of the European police records index system. I note this element of the proposal is optional for member states, so opting in to the proposal does not bind us to engage in this form of co-operation. I believe we should opt in to the Prüm proposal so that this option of extending our co-operation to police records remains open to Ireland. Should we fail to opt in, we will not be able to decide in future that we would like to take advantage of this new means of police co-operation. It is also worth noting that while today the exchange of police records is possible, there is no efficient procedure to do so. The automation of the proposed system, finding out whether relevant information exists in another member state or does not, would reduce the need for manual work and save resources. In case the automated search yields no results, competent law enforcement authorities will not have to process the request and retrieve the information, thereby saving time and resources and better respecting data protection rights. An Garda Síochána was part of the European police records index system, EPRIS, pilot project, the success of which has led to the inclusion of this new feature in the Prüm proposal.

The proposal will also bring Europol and the data the European law enforcement agency holds within the ambit of Prüm information exchange. This will allow member states to perform automated searches on a hit, no hit basis of third country data held by Europol, and Europol to check third country source data against the national databases of member states. Importantly, Europol's participation in Prüm will be in accordance with and subject to the data protection measures in Europol regulation.

Fighting crime and effectively utilising the technology and data available to do so is in the public interest. However, there is also a strong public interest in ensuring data rights are upheld and data protection measures are sufficient. Importantly, under Prüm II, processing of data will be limited to the extent necessary to achieve its purpose.

It allows for the comparison of data only on a case-by-case basis, and there is no fully automated exchange. The searching is conducted in an automated manner but expert verification is required to confirm a match before any personal data can be exchanged. The exchange of facial images will not entail the possibility of live facial recognition screening of a large number of persons in public spaces, and there is no envisaged use of artificial intelligence for the comparison of facial images.

The costs arising from our participation in respect of this proposal are difficult to calculate, but the European Commission has produced estimates that appear reasonable. The costs must be considered in light of the importance of fighting crime and ensuring public safety and security.

The Department of Justice, in conjunction with An Garda Síochána and Forensic Science Ireland, is beginning a project to address the required upgrades to Ireland's automated fingerprint identification system, AFIS. There is an opportunity to combine the needed upgrade work with the technical adaptions that arise from the Prüm II proposal. Ireland benefits from the Prüm-based information exchange to date. Participation in these measures is a demonstration to our European partners that we intend to play our part responsibly in fighting crime and ensuring safety for Irish and other European citizens. It is not only our partners who will be interested in seeing whether Ireland continues to participate in these important police co-operation measures, because the criminal elements in our society and across Europe will be ready and willing to exploit any gap in co-operation should we allow it to emerge. The Government has no hesitation in commending the motion proposing that we opt in. The Office of the Attorney General has advised that opting in via Article 3 is in order and is in fact the prudent course of action. Ireland can support the measures contained within and should opt into the proposal. I commend the motion to the House.

We have discussed automated data exchange under the Prüm framework on several occasions in addition to cross-border databases related to crime. As we outlined before, Sinn Féin welcomes this co-operation as long as the databases are operated with the correct level of oversight.

Cross-border co-operation is a non-negotiable element of modern law enforcement, especially against organised crime. In 2017, it was estimated that there are 5,000 serious and organised crime gangs, 70% of which are active in more than three countries. Anti-money laundering regulations and civil forfeiture through the likes of the Criminal Assets Bureau have meant these gangs have become increasingly sophisticated, and some of them work in co-operation rather than in competition with each other. This poses great challenges in confronting them. I commend the efforts of An Garda Síochána in tackling large criminal organisations here in combination with other law enforcement agencies, including those in the US, Spain and the UK. There can be no hiding place for the criminal organisations. Irish organisations are alleged to have collaborated with gangs in Italy, the Balkans and the Netherlands, and they are also active in the UK, Spain and the United Arab Emirates. Clearly, more collaboration between law enforcement agencies is necessary. While we hope these gangs can be taken on, I sound a note of caution. With the disruption to criminal networks, we can expect to see increased competition for supply lines and market share. This could lead to feuding and violence, which will see ordinary communities suffering the consequences.

We need to address the underlying demand for drugs, ensure proper healthcare and tackle supply. The link between the casual use of cocaine in this country and organised crime must be highlighted. The proliferation of cocaine use in the smallest towns and villages is directly leading to the enrichment and empowerment of the organisations.

With regard to the set of measures currently under consideration, there are several points to be made. First, the facial image proposals promise much in terms of effectiveness in catching criminals, but there are civil liberties concerns. Data being available only on a hit, no hit basis, with no provision for generalised access, is welcome. It is important to streamline the exchange of personal and case-related data and ensure the automatic exchange of data for criminal investigations, with a high level of data protection. However, envisaging no artificial intelligence does not go far enough, perhaps. We should be wary of the use of automated processes using large data sets. There is a balance to be struck where serious crime is concerned. Databases should be airtight in terms of legal challenges on human rights grounds so criminals will not be in a position to overturn their convictions on technicalities and so we may protect the rights of ordinary people. Any risks of false positives should be eliminated.

Second, the central router for data needs to be properly supervised. I am curious as to whether there is a physical storage location. With the use of PULSE, we have seen that systems can sometimes be open to abuse and that access to criminal records from other countries carries a risk. This is all the more reason to have the necessary safeguards in place.

Let me sound one more note of caution related to the processes and potential abuses by EU member states. Spain, for example, was found to be using the Pegasus spyware against peaceful Catalan independence activists. International law and treaties create binding obligations in these areas. It is right and proper to proceed with caution. The motion and the measures proposed do so.

This is indeed an important issue. It is presented as a technical one but one that has significant implications for law enforcement, the ongoing battle against crime, particularly serious crime and terrorism, and international criminal cartels. We have to give our State the capacity to co-operate with other member states and jurisdictions across the globe to ensure the law enforcement side of the battle is as capable of using technology as the criminals.

This is my first opportunity to pay tribute to An Garda Síochána for the spectacular success of last week. The efforts made by the Garda in persuading international law enforcement agencies, especially the United States Department of Justice and the United States Drug Enforcement Administration, to take decisive cross-national action against the Kinahan criminal organisation. This is an extremely important success that underscores the Garda's persistence and dedication to the task.

Before us for approval is a new regulation for updating the existing code of practice, adding to DNA, fingerprint, palm print and vehicle registration data capacity facial recognition and police record data. Only facial images of suspected or convicted criminals could be exchanged. The Minister of State has underscored that today. It is really important. In jurisdictions such as China, there is mass surveillance of populations with artificial intelligence. People can be identified in crowds. People who say discordant things from the administration's perspective can have their movement curtailed. Therefore, the sorts of issues we are dealing with have to have a clear, spelled-out legal underpinning that safeguards the rights and privacy of individual citizens. It must be enforceable.

We need to have independent oversight of all this. I am not sure where the independent oversight is dealt with. The Minister of State might indicate that to us in his reply. With regard to old-fashioned technology for what used to be called phone tapping, there is legally required judicial oversight. That sort of oversight should be available regarding data exchange in the way envisaged in this case. Clearly, there is a need to provide the technology in question to our law enforcers. The battle against crime knows no boundaries and we need to approach it on that basis. We also need to ensure we know to whom we are giving data and with whom we are exchanging it. Some of the issues arising regarding the rule of law, even in some EU member states, cause us concern. We need to ensure what we do is always overseen independently and protected. The hallmark of a democratic and free society must be the protection of individual citizens' privacy. Law enforcement should be clear and open and subject to independent review and oversight.

I note in the opening sentence of the contribution of the Minister of State he cited Protocol No. 21 on the position of the United Kingdom and Ireland. At the time of that protocol, the United Kingdom was part of the European Union. I presume it is still necessary to cite that because it is the existing protocol. He might indicate the situation now regarding the new updated Prüm II regulation and the position in regard to the United Kingdom in terms of whether it is fully embracing this and will continue to share the new data on facial imaging and criminal records or is not participating in the ongoing development of co-operation on law enforcement these regulations underpin.

I thank the Minister of State for his opening statement. I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate and the motion before us, short as it is. I support the motion.

All contributions have shown an awareness of the transnational nature of organised crime and terrorism, whether that is people trafficking, weapons smuggling or drug trafficking. People appreciate that. We can also appreciate our law enforcement personnel need the means to reach across borders and access the appropriate information in a timely fashion so that they can deter, detect and prosecute serious crimes. At the very least, our law enforcement personnel deserve that from this House.

A lot of exchange of information is already taking place. The principle is already firmly established. We can already exchange information regarding car registration plates, DNA and finger and palm printing. I understand those categories of information exchange are already functioning well. The motion and associated legislation add an additional two categories to the information exchange, namely, facial images and police records. It is completely appropriate we move forward in an incremental fashion.

Some of my colleagues alluded to the fact that balance is being appropriately struck here, which is important. We have struck an appropriate balance between timely access to information and have ensured the data protection component is also respected. I am glad no artificial intelligence is permitted at this time. I am also reassured by the fact that information received or transacted through the system will be the exclusive preserve of law enforcement agencies. In this country, that will be An Garda Síochána, Forensic Science Ireland and the Department of Transport. It is completely appropriate and fitting that should be the case.

I very much welcome the motion and am happy to support it. I look forward to its swift implementation.

I thank Deputies for their contributions and support. We are facing an increasingly dynamic criminal threat. Criminals are becoming increasingly sophisticated. As Deputy Howlin pointed out, crime is becoming more and more transnational. We have to think transnationally and dynamically to address those issues. The updates are welcome. As Deputy Berry pointed out, the principle is established but we need to keep updating these powers to ensure An Garda Síochána and other police forces have the necessary power. We have to ensure a balance is struck between giving police forces the necessary powers while also ensuring people's data is properly and rightfully protected, as Deputy Howlin pointed out.

Regarding the UK, I cannot say that it is continuing to participate in Prüm II at the moment. My understanding is the position of the UK will be negotiated after Prüm II has been completed. Once all of the European Union countries have resolved the situation, negotiation will then be entered into with the United Kingdom. The Data Protection Commissioner is the oversight body for the existing Prüm and she will continue to be the oversight body for Prüm II.

Question put and agreed to.
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