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Seanad Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 26 Apr 2022

Vol. 284 No. 7

Prüm II Proposal: Motion

I move:

That Seanad 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 Seanad Éireann on 1st February, 2022.”

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.

I welcome the Minister to the House. Because this is the first opportunity have had to address the issue, I congratulate the Minister and the Department, as well as An Garda Síochána, in particular, for the work that has been done in Ireland and internationally in regard to the Kinahan gang. We have taken extraordinary steps forward. If ever there were a case for international co-operation, what has been done with the drug enforcement administration in the United States and the freezing of assets in the United Arab Emirates and elsewhere, is a demonstration of how that co-operation can work. I do not expect the Minister to comment on this, but it is tremendously important that we take steps to at least seek the extradition of certain persons from the UAE. I believe that is now possible. Notwithstanding the absence of an extradition treaty, I know that it has been achieved by the Italians in respect of Raffaele Imperiale, a drug trafficker. It is something we should definitely look at. I understand it would be done at the discretion of the Department. I do not expect the Minister to comment on circumstances that would happen as a result of a decision taken internally in the Department. I congratulate those involved in the work that has been done. We can see the fruits of that work. It ties in nicely with this issue because there is no doubt that those results have been achieved because of co-operation between police forces and agencies on an international basis.

The points the Minister made about the danger of a country such as Ireland stepping out of these agreements are very well received. I will talk about the protections in a moment. Although we sometimes fear exposing ourselves to that level of international co-operation and connectivity, it carries, almost uniquely, benefits for a country such as Ireland. It is tremendously important to look at the possibilities that may open up for a country such as Ireland, particularly in crime detection as well as enforcement and prosecution. The opportunities that could be opened up are enormous. In that regard, it is important to note the safeguards the Minister mentioned in her contribution. When we think of this level of co-operation internationally and the danger of the breadth of information that may be available to another state, for example, it is an issue about which people may have concerns.

It is important to remind ourselves that we are dealing with the EU and the UK, and countries that have protocols in place to protect people's data. We will not go down the road of countries such as China, where large tranches of information are sifted by artificial intelligence, and other systems, and where facial recognition software is used to identify people in crowded places, etc. That is not, as I understand it, envisaged by this regulation. There are protections in place in order that data protection regulations still hold sway and people's individual data will be protected, which is tremendously important. What the Minister said about retaining control of our data is also tremendously important, while allowing other jurisdictions to potentially access aspects of that data to carry out crime detection activities, makes perfect sense.

We should not be afraid of co-operation on a policing level with other countries, particularly those in the EU, in regard to the kind of data we have discussed, such as fingerprints, palm prints, and car registrations. I note what the Minister said about the extension of that to police records. Again, this is something that happens, albeit on a slower and more systematic basis. Upon the introduction of a semi-automated system, it would not be the case that gardaí would be able to log in to a computer in Ireland and look through the records of the Polish or French police and vice versa. What we are talking about is a more efficient method of accessing data that should be available to everybody in the EU. There is a danger we have seen present in the US, where there are different states, counties and jurisdictions. The co-operation between them does not always work. We should have a seamless police environment within the EU so that we can effect the greatest possible policing at a European level, which would benefit us in Ireland as much as it would benefit other European states.

To those who have legitimate concerns about what this might mean, it is important to reassure them that safeguards are built into this provision that will protect them from the undue use and exploitation of their data. Equally, when we talk about exploitation, the great danger with not approving this motion is, as the Minister said, if there is a gap in those provisions, it will be exploited by criminal elements. It behoves Ireland to be as much a part of these measures as possible because they will benefit our policing, our detection, our prosecution. It would allow An Garda Síochána, as a police force, and the State to be more effective than if we were not part of it. I welcome and support the motion. I hope it will pass because I believe it will improve the policing environment in Ireland and across the European Union.

The Minister is very welcome to the House. She outlined very clearly in her contribution the reasons we should support this proposal. On behalf of the Fianna Fáil grouping, I will certainly do so. Senator Ward mentioned a high-profile case that was in the media recently. If one were looking for an example of a high-profile case where co-operation among police forces throughout the world is vitally important, that is not a bad place to start.

The Minister mentioned, and it is hugely important, that where citizens' information is being shared with others, be it a police force or otherwise, the rights of those citizens would be protected. She outlined clearly in her contribution that this would be the case. The fight against crime is on a global pitch. There needs to be co-operation between police forces throughout the world within legitimate democracies, where information can be shared freely, and that we have the confidence and security in the knowledge that the information will be treated in a sensitive manner.

I will not hold the debate up; I just have a couple of quick questions. Is there a timeframe within which this proposal will be reviewed? Does our closest neighbour, the UK, have a similar arrangement with the EU, which would include Ireland, or what is the position in that regard?

In summary, it is in the public interest to have as much co-operation as possible among police forces throughout the world, and this proposal is an extension of that. The motion is to be welcomed and I thank the Minister for bringing it before the House.

I will not take the full five minutes because this topic has been well covered and succinctly opened by the Minister, whom I welcome to the Chamber, in her contribution. The advantages clearly outweigh the disadvantages. I understand there might be an immediate, instinctive reaction from some quarters who zealously protect data, but we have to assure them that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. We must place the common good first. Balances and checks are contained in this motion and in the Attorney General's advice, to which the Minister referred.

We have long since taken our place as a nation among the nations of the world. This is just one further example of solidifying that position and that Ireland is not, and never will be, a safe haven for criminality. We live in a place called Europe. There is an environmental phrase, "Think locally, act globally". This is very apropos for tonight when we want to do all we can. The only way of defeating people is to act, preferably, yesterday. We are already too late. We are all the time playing catch-up. All we can do is our very best and that includes global co-operation like never before.

It might include some slight discomfort for some who zealously protect and value their independence. Data protection and privacy is a fundamental right and it is enshrined in our Constitution, but this is not repugnant to our Constitution or the right to privacy because there is a greater challenge at stake here to protect us all, and that must come first in the hierarchy of rights. Therefore, I agree with previous speakers and I am pleased to say that the Green Party-Comhaontas Glas will also be fully supportive of this initiative.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. Mar an gcéanna le comhghleacaithe eile, beidh Sinn Féin ag tacú leis an rún atá os ár gcomhair anocht. The Prüm Convention and the Schengen Agreement are a series of measures that cover cross-border co-operation in the exchange of data regarding DNA, fingerprints and vehicle registration of concerned persons involved in criminal and terrorist activities. As we know from daily experience in this country, cross-border criminal networks are a real threat to the safety and well-being of large numbers of people. That threat now exists on a bigger scale across Europe. Other colleagues have referred to some of the more notorious criminal gangs that have emerged in this jurisdiction. They are alleged to have collaborated with gangs in Italy, the Balkans and the Netherlands, while their criminal activities are carried out here as well as in Britain, Spain and the United Arab Emirates.

The focus of the convention is the criminal organisations that cause so much misery to those they target and coerce. While we relentlessly pursue the criminals, we also have to be mindful that the laws being used do not inadvertently affect people's human and civil rights. That is why, when it comes to certain restrictive measures in the technological field such as databases tracking migrants, there needs to be strict oversight and scrutiny. The proposal correctly rules out the use of artificial intelligence to scan the facial images of the general population but it may be used against known or suspected criminals. Human rights-based law is compatible with protecting the people the criminals are exploiting while firmly and effectively closing down the criminal organisations themselves.

It is ironic that the British Government was one of the largest users of certain shared crime databases administered within the EU when its Brexit policy has tied its hands by withdrawing from the European Union. Nonetheless, as the Minister knows, there needs to be effective co-operation between the EU and the British Government when it comes to agreeing an approach to tackling organised crime across the Union. This approach needs to be based on clear guidelines and accountability, not aspirational or persuasive appeals. That approach does not work. States have resources, both intellectual and practical, way beyond what most of the advanced criminal organisations have. Those resources need to be marshalled and used to suppress and render ineffective organised crime. This motion will assist in that objective and we support it.

I too welcome the Minister. The Labour Party will be supporting this motion. As other speakers have said, international co-operation is essential and it is particularly essential for us on this island. We need to know what is going on around us and ensure this is no haven for criminal activity. This is a very important motion in order to reflect that. It is important to say that we will retain control of our own data. That has been said by a number of speakers, including the Minister herself, and that fact is essential for some people who may have concerns around this motion. Senator Gallagher raised a question about our nearest neighbours. With Brexit and everything else going on, I would be very interested to hear a reply to Senator Gallagher's question about how the UK will sit with this and how we will share data with the UK now that it is no longer part of the EU. That is very important given its closeness and the fact that we have shared so many commonalities over the last period of time.

As no other Senators are indicating, I now invite the Minister to reply.

I will be brief. I thank the Senators for their support and co-operation in allowing this motion to pass as quickly as it has. The reason we are bringing it before the Houses today is that there is a strict timeframe and it was required to be done within the next few days. The next priority is to get the review up and running. As there is a database involved, there is a technical side to it and that will take some time to put in place, but once it is up and running and effective it will be constantly reviewed, as is the case with any legislation. All member states have agreed to have this supported by their parliaments as quickly as possible in order to opt in.

The UK has opted into the current Prüm system so I am assuming it will opt in to this one. I do not have an indication as to whether or not that will be the case but I can only assume it will continue in that regard. How that will work is not clear but through our engagement, whether in the Department of Justice or any of the other Departments, we have in many instances, although not all, found mechanisms to replicate the type of engagement that existed prior to Brexit. That might be through memorandums of understanding or other systems we have put in place with regard to data sharing and police co-operation. It is very important that this continue as we implement these measures. It is clear that opting in satisfies the public interest. It enhances our co-operation, as many colleagues have outlined, and it helps us fight crime and ensure security for our citizens. What is really clear is that, by opting out, not only would people lose out on these additional advancements and technology but it would stop our current co-operation. That would be detrimental and, as Senator Ward said, would send a very clear and unwelcome signal to criminals that we are not serious about making sure they are brought to justice. I again thank colleagues for their support for this motion.

Question put and agreed to.

When is it proposed to sit again?

Amárach ar 10.30 a.m.

Cuireadh an Seanad ar athló ar 7.57 p.m. go dtí 10.30 a.m., Dé Céadaoin, an 27 Aibreán 2022.
The Seanad adjourned at 7.57 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 27 April 2022.