Ireland has agreed to share facial imagery of suspects and convicted criminals with other European countries as part of an expanded crime-fighting data-sharing system.
The Oireachtas passed an update to the existing EU Prum system which will also enable Ireland to share police records with other EU law enforcement agencies.
The original Prum system allowed member states to share DNA, fingerprint, and vehicle registration data as part of investigations into specific crimes.
Justice Minister Helen McEntee said Ireland had put in hard work and spent valuable resources complying with Prum, which was transposed into Irish law in 2014 and 2018.
She told senators that if Ireland did not choose to opt into the new Prum II proposal not only would Ireland miss out on the extended measures but that the existing cooperation under the present system would “come to an abrupt end”.
She said such a scenario would undermine public safety and security and weaken An Garda Síochána’s capacity to respond to criminal threats.
The minister said there was a technical development in the new system — a central router — which would improve the efficiency of the data-sharing.
“At present, connections are made on a member-state-to-member-state basis, resulting in duplication of effort and expense,” she said.
“The central router will act as a message broker and, once connection is established with it, each member state will be connected to all other member states that have connected. Importantly, though, the central router will hold no data and member states will retain ownership and control of their own data.”
She said Prum II would expand categories of cooperation to facial images and police records.
“Regarding facial images, Ireland should support this extension,” Ms McEntee said. “Identification of criminals is of vital importance to any successful criminal investigation and prosecution and there are occasions when the only lead captured in respect of a crime is an image of a suspect from a nearby security camera.
“An Garda Síochána has indicated that had a recent and awful high-profile murder been committed in a city rather than a relatively small town, it would almost certainly not have been able to identify the perpetrator through CCTV without the use of facial recognition.”
She moved to reassure those with concerns, as has been expressed by the Irish Council for Civil Liberties and similar European bodies, regarding the use of facial recognition scanning for mass surveillance purposes or discriminatory targeted surveillance.
The minister said: “The exchange of facial images will not entail the possibility of live facial recognition screening of a large number of persons in public spaces and there is no envisaged use of artificial intelligence for the comparison of facial images.”
She said the Department of Justice, with the Gardaí and Forensic Science Ireland, was beginning a project to address the required upgrades.
Members of political parties, including Sinn Féin and Labour, in both the Seanad and the Dáil that spoke on the issue supported the proposals.
In the Dáil, Labour TD for Wexford Brendan Howlin noted that only facial images of suspected or convicted criminals could be exchanged and said that was “really important”.
He said that in China mass surveillance involving facial scanning technologies were used.
He said there had to be “independent oversight” of Prum II.
Sinn Féin Kerry TD, Pa Daly, welcomed the proposals “as long as the proposals are operated with the correct level of oversight”.
He said: “The facial image proposals promise much in terms of effectiveness in catching criminals, but there are civil liberties concerns. Data being available only on a hit, no hit basis, with no provision for generalised access, is welcome.”
Independent TD for Kildare South Cathal Berry welcomed the measures and said he was glad no artificial intelligence was permitted this time.