The use of new technologies and challenges on data protection in the context of cross border cooperation and information sharing to counter terrorism and related transnational organized crime
The exchange of forensic data is a vital tool for investigations into transnational crimes as well as an important capability in the identification of terrorists and FTFs, including returnees and relocators. In the context of border security and management (BSM), biometric data provides the means for verifying the identity of those who seek to enter, transit or depart international borders including those within irregular migration flows. Biometrics, together with data analytics and digital forensics, is one of the three key areas of innovation necessary to enable international law enforcement to address today’s advanced security landscape. In this regard, a lack of biometric data being collected and shared internationally has the potential to create a critical security gap which may be exploited by terrorist and/or returning and relocating FTFs.
Enhancing the sharing of operational information on known and suspected terrorists and FTFs, including biometric data, among Member States assists in building situational awareness of travel routes and modus operandi so that coordinated measures for prevention and prosecution may be strategically implemented. INTERPOL databases provide key tools for States to verify and share information related to FTFs. However, information exchange and inter-agency cooperation, both within and between countries remains a key challenge. Of concern is that in many remote border control points there is a lack of access to these databases and a lack of interconnectivity nationally, regionally, and internationally. Additionally, many countries are not participating in entering information into INTERPOL’s ‘Foreign Terrorist Fighters Database’, meaning that critical information necessary for identification and interdiction may not be available to the international law enforcement community.
it is important to note that migrants, asylum seekers and refugees are more likely to be the victims of violent extremism than the perpetrators, there is nevertheless the potential for exploitation of large flows of asylum seekers and migrants by foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) and their networks. Indeed, as vast volumes of irregular migrants, including those seeking asylum, continue to move across borders, this poses an immense challenge to States’ efforts for border management and identification of potential security threats, including the cross-border of FTFs.
Equally important, however, is that the collection, use, and sharing of operational data, including biometrics as a means of enhancing BSM is done in a responsible manner in line with Member States’ obligations under domestic and international law, in particular obligations under international human rights law, refugee law, and humanitarian law. Respect for human rights and the rule of law is complementary with effective counter-terrorism measures and essential to successful counter-terrorism efforts.
II. Case Study: Western Balkans: INTERPOL Project HOTSPOT
The strategic geographic location of the Western Balkans makes it particularly attractive for trafficking drugs, weapons, and people. The region is situated between the world’s biggest producer of opium, Afghanistan, and the biggest market for heroin, Western Europe. It is becoming an increasingly important entry point for cocaine, as well as a place for laundering the proceeds of crime. The region is also one of the main routes for people moving illegally from the Middle East and North Africa to the EU, either as smuggled migrants or victims of human trafficking.
The refugee crisis of 2015 put the ‘Balkan route’ back at the center of public attention. Political instability in the Middle East and terrorism in Syria and Iraq have a tremendous impact on the flow of retuning FTFs to the West Balkans and the increase of illicit trafficking of SALW and cultural property. As of early 2018, almost one-third of the 1,070 FTFs – around 330 individuals – had returned to their countries of origin, thus making the Western Balkans the region with the highest concentration of returning FTFs in Europe and creating a long-term security challenge compounded by inadequate resources and the threat posed by homegrown terrorist militants.
Most of the criminal groups operating in the region are transnational organized networks controlling the main border areas used for migrant smuggling and all kind of illicit trafficking. These organized criminal groups benefit from and exploit remote and often porous borders, deficiencies in law enforcement capacities, and gaps in inter-agency and cross-border coordination and information sharing.
Project HOTSPOT supports Member States to strengthen their capacities by enhancing cross-border cooperation and operational information sharing through the development and implementation of a sustainable and integrated mechanism for risk assessment. The mechanism relies on the collection of biometric data that will be crosschecked on real time from the frontline against INTERPOL databases, to efficiently prevent, detect, and disrupt the travel of terrorists and their affiliates, including FTFs, who may make use of irregular migration routes and the criminal organizations that facilitate their travel. INTERPOL’s databases of fingerprints and facial images are central to the project.
The case study will address the outcomes of the data collection and screening trial conducted in a pilot operation of project HOTSPOT in Albania, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia in September and October 2019. Over a two-day exercise in each country, officers collected fingerprints and facial photos from 480 individuals who were accommodated in the reception centers for irregular aliens after crossing the border outside official border check points and without any identification document. Data comparison and profiles collected from individuals - all over the age of 18 - claiming to come from Central Asia and the Middle East and North Africa region revealed one match of an individual who had already been found trying to enter Europe illegally in 2011. Case information was shared with respective countries for appropriate action.
On May 25th, 2021, the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Centre (UNCCT), through the BSM Unit, in partnership with the World Border Security Congress (WBSC), will conduct the last of a series of four (4) thematic webinars focused on the critical role that international cross-border cooperation and information sharing play as keystone interlocking elements to prevent and combat terrorism.
This fourth webinar aims to address the use of new technologies and challenges on data protection in the context of cross border cooperation and information sharing to counter terrorism and related transnational organized crime. The first session of the event will be focused on the presentation of a case study on INTERPOL Project HOTSPOT, followed by an interactive dialogue among experts from UNOCT-UNCCT, INTERPOL, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and United Kingdom, that will share their insights and first-hand experiences on INTERPOL databases and biometric technology as critical tools to successfully tackle the terror-crime nexus. During the virtual discussion, the audience will have the opportunity to raise questions, provide comments and inputs that will be addressed by the experts.