European data protection supervisor Peter Hustinx demanded some changes to a plan by lawmakers to link up all national criminal databases in the 27-member European Union, but broadly he supported the move.
National governments and the European Commission want to build ECRIS (European Criminal Records Information System), an encrypted network linking national criminal justice systems, allowing them to exchange information such as current and past criminal records about individuals.
Up to now this has proved cumbersome and frequently a judge in one country may not be aware of a suspect's related activities in another EU country.
While giving his broad support for ECRIS, Hustinx expressed doubts that the system would pay due respect to citizens' privacy.
Under the ECRIS plan drafted by the Commission, all criminal records would be stored locally in the country they originated from. The national databases would be linked with interconnection software that member state governments want to run.
However, Hustinx said the responsibility for interconnection must be put in the hands of the European Commission.
"The processing of personal data relating to criminal convictions is of a sensitive nature, and the confidentiality and integrity of criminal records data sent to other member states must be guaranteed," Hustinx said.
He added that it is "paramount that high standards of data protection be applied to the functioning of the system, which should ensure a solid technical infrastructure, a high quality of information and an effective supervision."
EU lawmakers aren't obliged to follow the opinion of the European data protection supervisor, but in most cases they do follow his recommendations.
In a formal opinion submitted to the lawmakers on Tuesday, Hustinx recommended that a "high level of data protection" be made explicit in the legal text creating ECRIS, and that it should be a precondition for running the system.
To achieve this, the European Commission must be responsible for the common communication infrastructure, and not member states as provided in the proposal, Hustinx said.
The plan is for ECRIS to use automatic translation software. Hustinx agreed in principle but demanded that their use be clearly defined and circumscribed, "so as to favor mutual understanding of criminal offenses without affecting the quality of the information transmitted".
ECRIS will operate on the Trans-European Services for Telematics between Administrations (S-TESTA) communications network. S-TESTA is the EU's classified telecommunication network. It was built for the Commission by a consortium comprising Hewlett-Packard and Orange Business Services (a division of France Télécom formerly called Equant) in a contract worth €210 million.
The Commission has promised to provide interconnection software tailored specifically for the exchange of criminal records by the beginning of next year.
In the meantime, the European Parliament will give its opinion about ECRIS next week, although it has no formal role in adopting the ECRIS plan. The final decision is left to the national governments, and is expected in the coming months.