Homer rolls back the boulder

by David Moss

February 2010


Exclusive Last week we were treated to the good sense of Ron Noble, the plain-spoken Secretary General of Interpol. Spending money on pantybomber scanners is probably a poor allocation of resources, watchlists and no-fly lists are of limited value, more important is to check against the Interpol database of lost and stolen passports whenever people cross borders.

Idealised portrayal of Homer
dating to the Hellenistic period.
British Museum

That last is an old theme of Mr Noble's. As long ago as December 2004, he complained that his passport wasn't checked when he entered the UK. By July 2007, nothing had changed:

Interpol said last night that the UK makes just 50 checks a month of the database; France by comparison makes 700,000 checks and Switzerland makes 300,000.

He doesn't mince his words:

Mr Noble said that Gordon Brown's promise last week to share a list of potential terrorists with other countries had yet to materialize. "British citizens might be surprised to find that this watch list announced by your prime minister last week has not been sent to Interpol," he said. "Why is it that some countries make sure passengers do not carry a bottle of spring water on to a plane, yet aren't careful to ensure convicted felons aren't entering their borders with stolen passports?"

Where are we now? Is the UK Border Agency (UKBA), successor to the Immigration and Nationality Directorate, still "not fit for purpose", as John Reid said in May 2006? How would we know? Traditionally, you could ask as many questions as you liked, you would never get an answer, just ... minced words.

That may now be changing, thanks to Lin Homer, UKBA Chief Executive. There again, it may not, but she does ask for her latest answer to be published on the web, in full and in context, and she does provide some facts and figures.

The UK is now using the Interpol database, she says, and:

Around 70 million checks are made against the database per year and to date there have been 13346 hits and 5108 documents seized.

A year ago we learned that the UK was not hooked up to the EU's SIS database of wanted criminals and terrorists – nine years after being offered the chance, we still hadn't managed to put the plug in:

Experts say the [SIS] database could form a powerful weapon in the fight against crime and terrorism. In the past, Home Office officials have said that connecting British forces to the system had proved impossible due to technical difficulties and "acts of God", such as a fire that destroyed vital IT equipment.

We're still not plugged in, but according to Lin Homer we should be plugged in some time after December 2011 (in time, perhaps, for the 2012 Olympics influx of fundamentalist sports fanatics?):

The UK is planning to connect to the second-generation Schengen Information System (the Central SIS II), which is being developed by the European Commission. The Commission-led project has experienced a series of technical issues which have delayed the entry into operation of the Central SIS II, and based on the Commission's current estimates, the earliest the UK will be able to connect is December 2011.

The UK is only taking part in the law enforcement aspects of SIS II. Via the e-borders system, SIS II will provide UK law enforcement agencies at the border with access to alerts on wanted and missing persons, lost and stolen passports and other identity documents, and lost and stolen vehicles.

Are light and reason finally shining into the security cave? Is information, on how our money is spent, on our security, finally being freed? And instead of glitzy and camera-friendly stunts, are practical initiatives finally being pursued?

David Moss has spent seven years campaigning against the Home Office's ID card scheme.

2010 Business Consultancy Services Ltd
on behalf of Dematerialised ID Ltd