According to the Associated Press, France has now flagged over 78,000 people as security threats in the Schengen Information System (SIS) database. The Schengen database was designed for information sharing — on residents considered to be dangerous — among European police forces. Though the 78,000 person figure, which is more than any other nation participating in SIS, may give the impression that France is showing hyper-vigilance, it is giving other European nations pause.
Andrej Hunko, a German parliamentarian, was the first to raise concerns about potential misuse of the SIS database in a question posed in a letter to his country’s Interior Ministry about “discreet checks.” Discreet checks are secret international checks on people considered a threat to national security or public safety. Hunko questioned whether and why different countries seemed to apply vastly different criteria when making the determination to add someone to the list.
“The increase in alerts cannot be explained by the threat of Islamist terrorism alone. Europol reports a four-digit number of confirmed foreign fighters, yet the increase of SIS alerts in 2017 is several times that,” Hunko said in a late March statement, released in response to the Interior Ministry’s answers.
That response included a spreadsheet detailing how many discreet checks each European country had flagged last year — more than 134,000 in all. These details had not previously been made public.
“This could mean that families and contacts of these individuals are also being secretly monitored. It is also possible that the measure is being used on a large scale for combating other criminal activity,” Hunko said. The number of French police entries “indicates a misuse” of the system intended to monitor dangerous criminals, he added.
The Schengen database can be used on the spot by various European security forces, allowing police, judicial authorities and other law enforcement to immediately check whether a person is wanted or missing, a car is stolen, or a firearm is legal. It is separate from the Europol database and far more widely used. The database was checked 5 billion times in 2017 alone, according to the director of the EU-LISA agency, Krum Garkov.
Hunko and others’ issues have more to do with a relatively unknown provision in European law that allows countries to flag people for “discreet checks.” These allow law enforcement in one country to notify counterparts elsewhere of a person’s location and activities. The system has become far more widely used since ISIS terrorist attacks on Brussels and Paris in 2015 and 2016, and entries went up from 69,475 in 2015 to 134,662 in 2017 according to data from EU-LISA and Germany.
As reported by the AP, “if someone is flagged for a discreet check, their name will come up for any law enforcement official who has stopped them anywhere in Europe — whether trying to cross an external border or running a red light. In the entry, the requesting country can ask for a subsequent action, ranging from simply reporting back their location, vehicle, and traveling companions to detaining them immediately for arrest.”
Discreet checks currently expire after one year but countries have them options to continually renew them at will. AP also crunched the numbers showing that vast disparities in its use by individual countries raise questions about both the effectiveness of the tools and the criteria countries are using to enter people into the system. With 78,619 entries by 2017, France makes up 60 percent of the discreet check database. Britain, with nearly the same population and 16,991 people flagged, comes in a distant second. Germany, Europe’s most populous country, had 4,285 people flagged last year, according to the Interior Ministry data.
Featured image courtesy of the Associated Press.