This is a technical motion, so I thank the House for facilitating this debate so quickly. The Prüm decisions, which this proposal seeks to update and improve, represent a cornerstone of European law enforcement information exchange. The Prüm decisions enhance the crime-fighting capacity of our law enforcement agencies while respecting data rights by enabling member states on a hit or no hit basis to search automatically 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 police co-operation and effective law enforcement information exchange with our European partners are vital tools in our shared fight against crime.
Ireland put in 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 2014 in respect of DNA and fingerprint co-operation and the Vehicle Registration Data (Automated Searching and Exchange) Act 2018. 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 abrupt end. This would clearly not be 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 that we face.
The new features of the proposal offer tangible improvements that Ireland should embrace. The new technical solution - the central router - should greatly improve the breadth and efficiency of our Prüm 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 it, each member state will be connected to all other member states that have connected. Importantly, though, the central router will hold no data and member states will retain ownership and control of their own data.
The proposal seeks to enhance co-operation by expanding the categories of data currently amenable to Prüm - DNA, fingerprints and vehicle registration data - to include facial images and police records. Regarding facial images, Ireland should support this extension. Identification of criminals is of vital importance to any successful criminal investigation and prosecution and 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 that had a recent and awful high-profile murder 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 seeks to expand Prüm co-operation to police records as part of the European Police Records Index System, EPRIS. This element of the proposal is optional for member states, so opting into the proposal does not bind us to engage in this form of co-operation. We should opt into 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 would 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 the exchange of police records is possible, there is no efficient procedure to do so. The automation of the process of finding out whether relevant information exists in another member state would reduce the need for manual work and save resources. In case the automated search yields no results, competent law enforcement authorities would 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 EPRIS pilot project and it is the success of that pilot project that has led to the inclusion of this new feature in the Prüm proposal.
The proposal will also bring Europol and the data that 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 or no hit basis on the third country data held by Europol. It will also allow Europol to check data sourced from third countries 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 the Europol regulation.
Fighting crime and effectively utilising the technology and data available to do so is in the public interest, but there is also a strong public interest in ensuring that 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 only allows for comparison of data in case-by-case situations and there is no fully automated exchange. The searching is conducted in an automated manner but expert verification is required to confirm a match and before any personal datum 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 this proposal are difficult to calculate, but the European Commission has produced estimates that appear reasonable. The costs must also be considered in light of the importance of fighting crime and ensuring safety and security.
The Department of Justice, in conjunction with An Garda Síochána and Forensic Science Ireland, is separately 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.