SIS: The Dawn of the Digital Border

by decoy[at]lo-res[dot]org and john[at]manifestor[dot]org


Invisible and unaccountable, the Schengen Information System(SIS) exemplifies the more undemocratic and repressive elements of the nascent European Union(EU).
A thorough critique of this terrifying concentration of power and information, a critique, which opposes not just the existence of the database itself, but the governments and institutions behind it, has to situate the SIS within the long history of European integration: Where the predecessor institutions of the EU were mainly aiming at the consolidation of resource exploitation, industry and agriculture, as well as the implementation of a common market, the EU is intended to supplement this economic collaboration with a legal and political entity comprised of the 15 current member states along with any future states deemed worthy of membership.
One of the main legal documents constituting this entity is the Schengen Agreement, signed in 1985 (Schengen I), and followed by a signed commitment to it's implementation in 1990 (Schengen II).[1] When the treaty of Amsterdam was signed in 1997, this agreement became part of the larger body of EU law. The initial agreement was signed by Belgium, Germany, France, Luxembourg and the Netherlands in the Luxembourg town of Schengen. Italy joined in 1990, Spain and Portugal followed in 1991, Greece signed in 1992 and Austria became a member of the Schengen group in 1995. In 1996 Denmark, Finland and Sweden joined. One year later Norway and Iceland were granted associated status to preserve the Scandinavian passport union.
The latter two are the only non-EU members of the Schengen group. Great Britain and Ireland are not going to fully join in.
The Schengen Agreement was meant to implement the freedom of movement and residence for citizens of the EU member states. This is one of the "Four Basic Freedoms" drafted in the original contracts for the European Community, the others being freedom of movement for capital, goods, and services. (Interestingly enough, freedom of movement for human beings was the very last of the four freedoms to be implemented.) In article 2 paragraph 1 of the agreement we can therefore find the abolition of all passport controls at borders within the union. Given this new abolition of internal border control, articles 9-18 guarantee the validity of visas issued by one member state across all the others, and outline plans for a uniform visa regime.
So much for the positive aspects.
While the citizens of the member states were granted the benefit of being able to cross borders freely, all others have to face a unified and restricted immigration policy according to article 5 of the agreement. The member states also agreed to unified procedures in law enforcement and administration of police operations in articles 39-91. Finally, article 2 paragraph 2 makes it clear that the new freedoms introduced by the Agreement (freedom of personal movement and freedom of residence within EU territory) can be revoked whenever a member-state sees public order or national security threatened. The member state that wishes to suspend the freedoms granted by the Agreement is supposed to "consult" the other parties to the agreement before doing so, but if "immediate action" is required, "the Contracting Party concerned shall take the necessary measures and shall inform the other Contracting Parties thereof at the earliest opportunity." The proceedings during and after the summits of Göteborg, Salzburg and Genoa have shown clearly, that extraditions, closed borders and bans from re-entry can be issued in a moment's notice without so much as a murmur of dissent or even concern from the EU as a whole. Denmark has even announced its intent to deny all article 2 freedoms for the duration of its EU presidency. The cases of Britain and Ireland are particularly remarkable in their repressive ambition. Those two countries are negotiating to become part of the Schengen Agreement only for purposes of unified and integrated law enforcement policy, but not as far as any immigration procedures are concerned since those are considered to be too liberal by their governments.
This process, in which the introduction of freedoms in the Schengen Agreement serves as an alibi or even as a justification for increased repression, culminates in articles 92-119 with the introduction of the Schengen Information System (SIS), which is intended both to compensate for the threat to "public order and security" posed by the lifting of internal border controls, as well as assist the member states in the enforcement of the new external border regime.
To understand the overriding emphasis placed by the governments and institutions behind Schengen on security and the maintenance of control (as opposed to freedoms of residence and movement), it suffices to note that the Schengen I agreement should have become effective with the signing of Schengen II in 1990, but instead was delayed until the necessary compensatory measures were in place and operational.
In 1995 -- conveniently the same year the EUROPOL agreement was signed -- the SIS was finally deployed across Europe and declared operational. Then, and only then, did authorities across Europe feel safe enough to announce the liberalization of individual movement through the abolition of border controls.

What is the SIS?

The SIS is an integrated network of law enforcement databases which is, among other things, supposed to provide the foundation for a streamlined administration of immigration from non-member states, making instantly available throughout the EU a potential immigrant's visa information as well as relevant details like proof of financial means for their stay or their reasons for entrance into the EU. It also combines the immigration process at the external border with instantaneous criminal background checks.
According to article 5 of Schengen II, immigration may be rejected on grounds of a perceived threat to public order and national security in any member state, no matter at which Schengen border the prospective immigrant applies. Furthermore, the SIS is -- according to the agreement -- intended to curb the tide of organized crime and border-crossing illegal activity which is claimed will result from the abolition of interior border controls. The SIS is supposed to supplement the existing law enforcement database systems of the individual member states with a network of police computers throughout the territory, linked together on a national level into the so called National Schengen Information Systems (N-SIS). The function of each N-SIS is to provide a point where the national system can be supplied with all the information made available by similar networks in the other member nations. This exchange of information occurs at the central point of the network, the Central Schengen Information System (C-SIS) located in Strasbourg, France. According to reports from the year 2001 the SIS connected over 50.000 computer terminals throughout Europe. [2]
The SIS works in a way comparable to certain peer-to-peer systems (like Napster, Kazaa etc.) used for file exchange by internet users, in which a central node - in this case the C-SIS - coordinates the transmission of data between the various nodes in the network. Whenever a record is added to any database within an N-SIS network, it is first distributed on this level and then communicated to the C-SIS system in France. Dedicated lines which open connections only on demand between an N-SIS node and the C-SIS database are available for this purpose. As soon as communication takes place, the C-SIS updates its records according to the N-SIS database's status, processes the record and then distributes it outward again to all the other N-SIS systems. Likewise, if some node connected to the SIS requests data, the C-SIS facilitates the exchange between the requesting N-SIS and all others and provides its own up-to-date files. Thus, if an immigrant is subjected to all the procedures at the border, including a criminal background check, the whole SIS participates in bringing all available information onto the screen of the immigration officer doing the check. All data entered as part of the same immigration procedure will travel backwards through the system at the very moment it is committed. Although there have been no performance tests made public to our knowledge, it might be safe to assume that all data entered at any SIS terminal will be available everywhere throughout the system within a day. Whether it concerns them or not, the authorities in France and elsewhere within the Schengen area will have access to everything an immigrant had to submit to a Portuguese immigration officer because he or she came from somewhere outside the Schengen area, like Brazil, Israel or Morocco.
In its operational terminology the SIS reflects the paranoid mindset of its developers: it is called an "alert" when someone or something is registered within the SIS for the first time. If the same person or item turns up in conjunction with some legal or investigative procedure this is called a "hit". Alerts have so-called "flags" which are supposed to give further information about the nature of the alert. These flags include notification whether the item in question is related to an immigration procedure or a crime. Up to the level of the flags, a mere tourist or immigrant is not treated differently from a professional criminal.

Unaccountable and undemocratic

While the Schengen Agreement does specify some restrictions and safeguards on the operation of the SIS, these provisions in practice have been more or less completely eliminated. For example, the SIS is only supposed to be able to store a limited amount of personal data -- political beliefs and racial origin are theoretically not supposed to by entered into the system. This is the point at which a supplementary network of administrative and database services called Supplementary Information Request at the National Entry (SIRENE) comes in. Never mentioned in the Schengen Agreement, and therefore not subject to any of the limited oversight processes specified therein, the SIRENE system provided for unregulated exchange of any kind of data between law enforcement officials in different member states following SIS 'hits'[3]. The SIRENE system was discontinued in 2001 [4], superseded by an improved system called SISNET with improved data transmission capabilities. These capabilities are needed for the planned expansion of the SIS to the SIS 2 [5], which will include new categories of flags to enable more specific labeling of alerts and hits and is supposed to implement the future storage of biometric data (fingerprints, retina-scans or even DNA samples). [6]
While the system grows in terms of its abilities to track and restrict the movements of people, it's accountability declines at the same time. Initially the performance of the SIS was supposed to be monitored by a body called Joint Supervisory Authority (JSA) which actually submitted a few reports which included criticism of the system as such as well as disclosure of data leaks and misuse within the SIRENE system, and this despite being severely under funded and at one point actually being denied access to the C-SIS facilities by the authorities there. [7] At present, its annual reports on the Schengen system as a whole appear to have been discontinued following the signing of the Treaty of Amsterdam in 1999, and the JSA seems to have been relegated to the role of an advisor whose function is to ensure the smooth operation of the system, and not to prevent the use of the system for repressive ends.

The real targets

With virtually no democratic control or oversight, the use and operation of the SIS has grown more and more ominous. While the Schengen Agreement forbids the entry of data on political beliefs, it has proved quite easy for governments to rationalize the use of the database for the suppression of dissidents by re-labeling them as threats to the security of the EU. A well documented example is that of a Greenpeace member from New Zealand who was en route to that organization's Amsterdam headquarters only to be turned back at Schipol airport because the French had entered an alert for her based on her anti-nuclear testing activism. [9] This political abuse of the system seems likely to be codified and formalized in the near future. In explicit contradiction to the legal basis of the SIS in the Schengen agreement, Germany has spearheaded an initiative to integrate a database for "known troublemakers" into the SIS to better track and restrict the movement of political activists into and within the Schengen area. [10]
Of course, despite the rhetoric pitching the SIS as an essential safeguard against cross-border organized crime, the system has been used overwhelmingly for the tracking and exclusion of immigrants -- according to statistics released in 1998, 80% of the then 1.2 million SIS entries regarding persons concern non-Europeans who should be deported and/or rejected at the common external EU frontier. [11]

No borders! No electronic substitutes!

The SIS, in implementing the "compensatory" measures necessary to grant some people a slight increase in their freedom of movement(as long as they behave themselves), subjects a large majority to a new kind of digital border control and tracking, one which, under the undemocratic shadow of the EU's "third pillar" (“Police and Juridicial Cooperation in Criminal Matters", i.e. the JHA, SIS, Europol, etc), will continue to expand and solidify, absent from public discourse and outside of legal scrutiny. This is a system which, without any juridical oversight or legal protection, imposes a punitive sanction --- the removal of a right to free movement. If a court (rather than the SIS's unholy alliance of technocrats and police) were to punish someone in such a matter, it might be referred to as "arrest", "detention", or "confinement". But in the Orwellian jargon of the SIS, what we have is merely a "security measure". The Schengen Agreement, under the pretense of removing the internal EU borders, has in reality constructed a virtual border extending throughout the entire space of Europe, transforming the relatively crude application of power possible at geographic borders into a fine-grained network of control. (In 1998, for example, the German police queried the SIS 65 million times, with only half of these occurring at the actual border, the rest made within the country itself, mostly during random checks of people suspected to be illegal immigrants. [12]) The SIS, introduced as a mere administrative measure necessary to establish some small amount of freedom of movement and residence within Europe, violates in the process at least 16 of the 30 articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. [13] In many ways, the Schengen Information System represents a greater menace to human freedom than the traditional borders it has helped replace.



This article was originally published in the Green Pepper issue on Borders 2003