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Data key to fighting terrorism

Matthias von Hein / js
March 24, 2016

After the Brussels terror attacks one thing is clear: Data sharing by security services must improve. National egos are creating potholes on the information highway - and Germany has its own problems in this regard.

Cybersecurity laptop
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/R. Hirschberger

We live in a globalized world. So do terrorists, especially when it comes to the so-called "Islamic State" (IS). Their trail of bloody attacks stretches from Southeast Asia to Africa, to the USA and repeatedly to Europe.

If the attacks in Brussels made anything thing clear it is that national answers to the threat of global terrorism are insufficient.

This is most obvious when it comes to the exchange of information between countries. That subject was in part put forth by German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere, and will play a central role at a meeting of EU interior ministers. Too many different authorities are collecting data in very different ways, and they only hesitantly exchange such information with one another. Terrorism expert Peter Neumann from King's College in London criticized this fact on the German television broadcaster ARD: "As of today, there is still no central database containing information on terror suspects and foreign fighters to which all European states and security authorities have access."

Sharing intelligence

But it is not for lack of trying. New initiatives and new laws have followed every terrorist attack to date - beginning with the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001.

Since then, the EU has proposed some 200 initiatives for the improvement of cooperation between the police and intelligence services. And several concrete steps have been taken: In January, Europol's "European Counter Terrorism Center" (ECTC) in The Hague began work. 50 specialists there are charged with collecting and evaluating information on terrorists.

German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere
German Interior Minister Thomas de MaiziereImage: Imago

Nevertheless, here as elsewhere, there is a massive gap between planning and execution, between aspirations and reality. For the ECTC can only succeed if individual member states deliver information. Member states, however, are not obliged to do so. EU parliamentarian Elmar Brok recently complained that only 5 of the EU's 28 member states regularly hand over relevant information to Europol.

A database full of holes

The same goes for EU-wide databases; for instance, the Schengen Information System (SIS). That system stores information on undesirables, missing persons and those with outstanding arrest warrants within the Schengen Area. Moreover, the database contains information on stolen automobiles, passports and weapons. There are around 50 million entries in the system.

Nonetheless, the director of the Association of German Criminal Police (BDK), André Schulz, told Deutsche Welle that the system only functions rudimentarily: "Several countries refuse - in part because they don't have the capacity - to enter data." The same can be said of the Eurodac database. In theory, this system should contain fingerprints from every asylum seeker that has appeared at a reception center, as well as information on illegal entries into the EU. Veteran police officer Schulz is straightforward: "Eurodac is a system with which one should be able to find out exactly when and where someone has entered the EU. But there, too, we only have rudimentary data - if any."

Beyond these databases, there are, among others, the Visa Information System (VIS) for the exchange of visa data. Further databases are planned, such as Passenger Name Records (PNR) which registers air travel data. And German Interior Minister de Maizière also wants to push for the completion of an Entry-Exit System (EES) for the Schengen Area.

Irak Syrien Bürgerkrieg Kämpfer von Al Nusra Front
Islamist fighters are being trained to conduct terrorist attacksImage: picture-alliance/AP

Federalism a roadblock

Interestingly, the Green party, which is pricipally in favor of individual data protection, is calling for the exchange of data as well. On Wednesday, Green party EU parliamentarian Jan-Philipp Albrecht, who is also Vice-Chairman of the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs, said that "governments of member states have to get willing to commit to common rules for the exchange of information and for the handling of data on suspects and accused persons."

But part of the truth is also that despite calls for a better exchange of information by the German interior minister, the concept is functioning poorly within Germany's own federal system. Some 40 different security and intelligence services are responsible for fighting the threat of terrorism on a state and federal level. Although a General Terror Defense Center (GTAZ), where representatives from the various authorities can exchange information, has been in existence since late 2014 - there still exists a certain information egotism among the individual states. André Schulz emphasizes that the BDK has pointed to this lack of informational exchange among the states for years. "We often fail from state to state," criticizes Schulz. He pointed to the so-called NSU complex, in which information on rightwing terrorists was not shared and did not prevent a series of deadly attacks over the course of six years.