Computer bugs bite the EU’s Big Brother

January 17th, 2009 - 11:05 am ICT by IANS  

Prague, Jan 17 (DPA) Big Brother would like to watch you. But he can’t, because his computer has crashed.That was the problem occupying European Union (EU) interior ministers Thursday in Prague as they debated the 27-member bloc’s continuing inability to share the fingerprints and photos of foreigners entering the border-free Schengen zone because of computer bugs.

“From our point of view, the test phase (of the Schengen Information System II, SIS II) has failed … The technical experts couldn’t manage it,” Austrian Interior Minister Maria Fekter told journalists during an informal meeting with EU counterparts.

It is a classic EU problem. On the one hand, one of the bloc’s founding principles is the free movement of people - a principle which led to the abolition of border controls between almost all EU member states with the creation of the so-called Schengen zone.

But on the other hand, governments across the EU are under ever-increasing pressure to defend their citizens against unwanted foreigners ranging from terrorists to unregistered grape-pickers.

That led the EU countries which founded Schengen in 1995 to create a database allowing them to exchange key data on travellers arriving in the area, in order to track potentially undesirable people.

The original Schengen Information System (SIS) focused on text-only data, such as the traveller’s name and passport number.

When the EU took in 10 new members in 2004 and began planning how to take them into Schengen, officials decided that it was the perfect opportunity to create a new SIS, capable of processing not just text information, but “biometric” data such as fingerprints and photos.

SIS II offers “a whole string of improvements” in terms of efficiency, flexibility and capacity, EU Justice Commissioner Jacques Barrot, whose organisation oversees the project, said Thursday.

But the new system quickly ran into problems. SIS II stations set up in individual member states were unable to communicate with the central server in Strasbourg, France, while experts reported that some of the data sent through the system simply disappeared en route.

And the technical problems rapidly became political as debate erupted over whether Schengen hopefuls such as Poland should be allowed into the border-free zone before the new system was in place.

After a row which saw the newcomers accuse Schengen veterans of bias, unfair treatment and simple incompetence, the EU decided to put back the launch of SIS II to September 2009, and to temporarily upgrade the original SIS so that the newcomers could use it.

That compromise went into operation in December 2007, as nine EU newcomers, from Estonia in the north to Malta in the south, joined the upgraded Schengen system - catchily renamed SISone4ALL.

But while the temporary system went smoothly into operation, the problems with its permanent replacement dragged on. In December, officials confirmed that bugs in the system had put the 2009 deadline, too, out of reach.

That sparked a new political row, with some states warning that EU newcomers Bulgaria and Romania would not be able to join Schengen without SIS II, in a virtual re-run of the 2007 debate.

The row came to a head in Prague Thursday, as EU interior ministers called for an analysis on why SIS II is still not working by June - and held out the option of scrapping the project entirely.

The analysis should contain a backup plan for abandoning SIS II, so that “we have conclusions on both routes and can opt for A or B”, said Czech Interior Minister Ivan Langer, who chaired the meeting.

And with SIS II now facing a make-or-break test in the hands of EU experts, it looks like the battle between Big Brother and the computer bugs could yet come to a painful, and messy, end.

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