EU Plans Biometric Border Checks

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Dave Einsel / Getty

A new biometric scanner at George H. W. Bush Intercontinental Airport, Houston, Texas.

It is a very 21st century conundrum: how can modern, open democracies provide basic homeland security in a world with nearly limitless mobility? On Wednesday, the European Commission tried to answer that by unveiling a border management plan calling for fingerprinting all foreign visitors to the European Union.

E.U. Justice Commissioner Franco Frattini said the electronic register scheme — which could be in place by 2015 — was needed to protect the E.U.'s external borders now that travelers can cross national boundaries without checks between the 25 E.U. countries that are part of the border-free 'Schengen' zone. (E.U. members Ireland and the U.K. aren't in the zone, which does include non-members Iceland, Norway and Switzerland.)

The proposal has alarmed civil rights campaigners who say the fingerprinting initiative is an invasion of personal privacy, and part of growing trend to identify and track people in the name of national security and immigration control.

However, Frattini said the measure aimed to help E.U. frontier controls keep pace with new technologies and new threats. "This package puts forward new ideas on the table for the control of our borders, at check points as well as along the length of the border, using the most advanced technology to reach the highest level of security," Frattini said. "These ideas will promote legitimate free movement of people, whilst also dealing with unexpected migratory pressure."

Offsetting the bureaucracy of the biometric database, the scheme allows E.U. citizens and pre-screened 'low risk' frequent foreign travelers to pass through automated, fast-track frontier checkpoints without coming into contact with border guards.

The plans mirror those adopted after the September 11, 2001 attacks by the United States, which already requires that foreigners be fingerprinted and photographed before they enter the country. U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff recently raised concerns about "the possibility of Europe becoming a platform for a threat against the U.S."

And it comes just three months after the Commission proposed measures copying the U.S. practice of requiring airlines that fly into the country to transmit detailed passenger data before the flight's arrival. The E.U. data system would store 19 pieces of sensitive passenger data for 13 years, including e-mail addresses, telephone numbers and payment details of flight tickets.

An estimated 8 million illegal immigrants live in the E.U.; in 2006, 500,000 of them were apprehended, and around 40% of these were removed. Officials say the Commission proposals will help E.U. customs, police and justice authorities better manage the estimated 300 million external border crossings each year at Europe's 1,792 designated frontier check points.

But Sophie in 't Veld, a Dutch liberal member of the European Parliament, says the E.U. has been blindly replicating unproven U.S. laws without thinking them through. "Every time the U.S. comes up with a new rule, the E.U. whines about it for a while, but then adopts same measure. But do they actually make the world a safer place?" she says. "Nobody in their right mind opposes real security measures, but I fear we are creating the illusion of security. Let's not pretend that taking fingerprints will eradicate crime, violence and terrorism."

Civil liberty groups are also skeptical about whether the plans will work. "What is the point of this? To build this massive haystack of information is not helpful, and does not make sense," says Tony Bunyan, head of London-based Statewatch. "The E.U. is actually ahead of the U.S. in creating a surveillance society. This proposal means that within ten years, all the population in Europe will be fingerprinted,"

Even police groups have raised concerns about the proposal, saying it could grate against concerns over privacy. "Fingerprints are a very good means to identify people, but the question is who will have access and for what purpose," says Jan Velleman, a spokesman for the European Confederation of Police. "Where there is data, there is a risk that it will be abused. We must not create impression that there is not an unchecked proliferation of databases."

The proposals will have to be confirmed by E.U. governments and the European Parliament, and Frattini hopes that concerns about the fingerprinting will be outweighed by reassurances over the eventual security benefits. But he is already facing an uphill battle to disprove assumptions that the E.U. has an innate impulse to create red tape to keep tabs on its citizens.