Wednesday, November 26, 2008

EU police in the dock over data sharing

Poor integration and lax practices are jeopardising EU efforts to fight international crime

Computing, 20 Nov 2008

The House of Lords' European Union Select Committee last week published a report criticising the information-sharing practices of European law enforcement

The report said that the benefits of intelligence-led policing were not materialising because EU countries were failing to engage with Europol, the agency set up to share crime intelligence across EU member states.

Current practices must be improved, insisted Lord Jopling, chairman of the committee.

"Europol is an important institution in the battle against organised crime, which is increasingly international in nature," he said.

At the heart of the problem is the failure of European police forces to use the Europol Information System (EIS), which was created to improve information sharing.

Written evidence submitted by the Home Office suggests that up to 80 per cent of information shared by police is passed through informal channels rather than through the EIS.

The Serious and Organised Crime Agency (Soca) is the UK body responsible for liaising with Europol, and exchanging crime information with other EU countries.

Europol is based in the Hague and Soca has eight liaison officers stationed there to share information with similar representatives from the crime-fighting bodies of other states.

That close proximity of officers has meant some 80 per cent of information is shared informally.

It is that informality which is hampering pan-European crime fighting, the report noted, as countries that lack these arrangements can miss out on vital information if it is not accessible via EIS.

Furthermore, that information may not be recorded for future use.

Top law enforcement officers giving evidence to the committee argued that Europol was central to proceedings, regardless of whether EIS was used or not. They also said an 80/20 split was overly simplistic.

But the Lords' report concluded that current practices could not be justified.

"It is still the case that 80 per cent of the data is obtained directly through liaison officers at a cost to the UK of about €2m (£1.7m) per year, while the remaining 20 per cent that comes through Europol costs this country €9.6m," it said.

In 2007 the situation improved there was an 80 per cent increase in the number of items of data stored on the EIS, due mainly to the introduction of automatic data loaders, but by May 2008 only five countries were using the automated loading system: Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Spain and Belgium.

The volume of data loaded by the UK onto the EIS is very low, mainly because Soca's IT systems are incompatible with the EIS, meaning that any inputting of data is a time-consuming process.

Nick Gargan, assistant chief constable at Thames Valley Police, told the committee: "In terms of the better use of the Europol Information System, I suppose a start would be to get properly connected to it, which we are not."

Improvement plans Soca and the Home Office plan to have this problem remedied "within the next year or two", according to the report.

The committee also heard that users are concerned about the quality of data on the EIS. Information was often found to be irrelevant to their needs, old or in need of updating, encouraging officers to go to their personal contacts for more
up-to-date facts.

Nonetheless, the committee urged Soca to improve its IT compatibility with the EIS and to use the system more effectively.

Soca was unable to comment at the time of writing.

No comments: