FECL 11 (December 1992/January 1993):
Speaking at the launch, the Paymaster General...said that efforts to combat [drug smuggling and fraud] would be maintained and enhanced where necessary. The Customs Information System was part of the enhanced effort - a powerful new tool available to Customs officers in the frontline against international crime. It will be fast, easy to use, and therefore very practical.
In a "background note to editors", the press release gives more details: "The Customs Information System (CIS) is designed to provide a fast, easy and efficient way of exchanging information amongst the customs services of the Community. It is based on the Systems Customs Enforcement Network (SCENT), but is a significant enhancement upon it. Some 55 terminals will be in place across the Community by the end of next year, with this number yet to increase to around 300 by the end of next year. The UK will have 25 terminals stationed across the country.
"The CIS makes messaging more user-friendly by use of a series of pre-set screen formats, which are displayed in the language of the local user. Standard messages, such as 'stop-and-search' are numerically coded, so avoiding language barriers when passing information between Member States.
"The system is designed to pass information in five main categories: 'persons', 'method of transport', 'commodities' and 'trends'. For each category there is a standard screen format for basic information with space on the screen to add specific requests, or other details. A further innovation is a bulletin board, for sharing news and offering or requesting expertise.
"Phase II of the system will see the addition of a dedicated CIS database in October 1993. Once established, this is expected to provide a valuable source of intelligence for investigators, who will be able to study reliably collated information on smuggling trends across the Community, as well as seeking details on individual cases.
"Storage of personal details on a database means that Phase II needs a legal base with full data protection provisions before it can become operational. An inter-governmental convention is being negotiated to provide comprehensive data protection provisions, and the relevant Community regulation is being amended in parallel to cover those areas which fall within Community competence (such as Common Agricultural Policy fraud).
"Only Customs Services and certain closely related agencies in some member states will have access to the CIS. There are currently no plans to link the CIS with other national information systems.
SCENT, and the newer CIS, are less well known aspects of EC computerized data exchange - certainly by comparison with the Schengen Information System. There has been little or no public discussion of the role of these systems. The "intergovernmental convention on data protection" referred to has received no publicity, and it will be interesting to see what it contains, given that some EC states still have no domestic data protection law. The EC draft directive on data protection does not cover most areas of Customs activity, since law enforecement falls outside the provisions of the Treaty of Rome. The reassurances about data protection are worth less than may appear at first sight - the UK's own interpretation of the Council of Europe Convention on Data Protection effectively exempts all law enforcement activities, so that there are no real rights of subject access or of independent scrutiny. Applied to SCENT and CIS, UK law would be worthless as a protection for the rights of the individual.