European judges have rejected an attempt by British security officials to gain access to a huge new store of visa application data being set up to combat illegal immigration, organised crime and terrorism.
The government went to court to force the EU to allow agencies such as MI5, SOCA and the UK Border Agency to use the Visa Information System (VIS), which will store details of every foreigner who applies to enter the bloc, including their fingerprints and photograph. Intelligence on those who have previously been refused a visa by another country is seen as particularly valuable.
Work on the system was agreed following the 2004 Madrid bombings, which killed 191. It is currently being implemented, with travellers from terrorism hotspots in North Africa and the Middle East the first to be affected. Once it covers all visas, the VIS is set to become the world's largest store of biometric data.
The data will be shared among intelligence and law enforcement agencies of every signatory to the Schengen Agreement, which allows their citizens of member countries to cross EU borders freely. Because Britain is not a member, however, and requires EU visitors to carry a passport, our authorities will be excluded following a ruling by the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg.
"We are disappointed in the court's decision," a Home Office spokesman said.
"Although the UK retains independent border controls, we saw value in having access to information on visas issued by our European counterparts to assist in criminal investigations and to help clamp down on fraudulent visa applications."
Lawyers for the government argued that Britain should be included in the VIS because it will act as a law enforcement cooperation measure, rather than part of Schengen, the main aim of which is free movement and immigration control. British agencies were offering to grant EU countries access to our visa application records, the Central Reference System, in return.
"UK participation in the [VIS] would be beneficial as not only would VIS become an important source of intelligence for UK law enforcement authorities, but other member states would also benefit from access to our richly populated visa information database," the Home Office spokesman said.
The court agreed with the Schengen members and the European Commission, however, that Britain's rejection of the Schengen Agreement means it cannot share the new database. There is no possibility of an appeal.
The defeat is a blow to efforts by British agencies to gather more "PROTINT" - intelligence from protected information, ie stores of personal data. Sir David Omand, a former director of GCHQ and Cabinet Office intelligence coordinator, last year highlighted the growing importance of such sources.
"Access to such information, and in some cases to the ability to apply data mining and pattern recognition software to databases, might well be the key to effective pre-emption in future terrorist cases," he said.
The Home Office said despite the defeat British agencies are able to access intelligence from European immigration databases.
"Although we will not have direct access to visa refusal information via VIS, we do have indirect access through other EU exchange mechanisms," the spokesman said.
Europol, the EU's criminal intelligence agency, will have direct access to VIS, and may pass information to Britain via SOCA. However, without direct access, VIS data cannot be used as part of the mass passenger profiling announced by Home Secretary Theresa May in the wake of last week's foiled airline bomb plot. ®