The United States and Germany plan to speed up the exchange of information to help in anti-terror efforts. Washington said it hopes the groundbreaking deal will serve as a model for cooperation with other countries.
The agreement will make it easier to check fingerprints
Under the new information sharing agreement, US and German law enforcement officials will have immediate, albeit partial, access to each other's fingerprint and DNA databases.
The move will allow authorities to check within minutes if a database contains a suspected terrorist's personal information. Should a match be found, authorities would then have to submit a request for more detailed information.
The effort will speed up the exchange of information and help in the terrorist fight, said German and US officials who met in Berlin to launch the bilateral agreement on Tuesday, March 11.
The deal between Berlin and Washington could be a model for other bilateral agreements
US Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and US Attorney General Michael Mukasey travelled to Berlin to meet with German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble and Justice Minister Brigitte Zypries. The deal will need German parliamentary ratification before becoming law, which Schaeuble said he hopes will happen by the end of 2008.
"It is imperative as peace-loving nations we continue to work together to counter the threat of terrorism and to cooperate in this effort using every tool at our disposal," Chertoff said.
A direct "hit"
The cooperation includes a "hit/no-hit" procedure whereby a country can access another country's national DNA and fingerprint database and determine whether it contains a terror suspect's data. If a "hit" occurs, a formal application can be made for further information.
"There is no automated exchange of information as such, but only an automated exchange of information on whether there is information available or not," Schaeuble said.
How much information should be shared?
The exception is DNA files, which are not allowed to be automatically shared under US law, Schaeuble said.
But the plan still raises privacy concerns, Germany's independent privacy commissioner Peter Schaar said on German public radio Deutschlandfunk.
Schaar gave the example of a protestor who is fingerprinted by German police. The information might be important to German officials, "but does that give the right to the United States, when I travel there and maybe have the wrong stamp in my passport, to get access to this data? I would say no," Schaar said.
Erosion of civil liberties?
Zypries said she was not concerned that the agreement would erode civil liberties.
"The data that is transferred can only be used in areas covered by the agreement and not for example as evidence in ongoing criminal cases," Zypries said at the joint news conference.
German politicians have called for greater cooperation
"We have ensured that there is an obligation that automated requests for information and replies are recorded ... and, of course, there is an obligation for the data to be destroyed" if it is not used, she said.
Privacy has become a major issue in Germany in recent years, with law enforcement agencies claiming they need more latitude to do their jobs. While courts have granted partial victories to those who advocate for more electronic surveillance, there's a sense that courts are sensitive to rights issues.
On Tuesday, Germany's highest court ruled that a police practice of automatically scanning license plates to check them against a list of suspects violates the country's constitution. The court said the surveillance technique was too broad and allowed authorities to do things such as profile an individual's movements.
Following a European model
Chertoff said the deal includes "robust privacy protection"
The deal is modeled on the Pruem Treaty signed by seven European Union countries including Germany in 2005. The treaty was drawn up following train bombings in Madrid by Islamist radicals in 2004 which killed 191 people. The treaty allows law enforcement in signatory countries to compare and exchange data more easily.
The US is in preliminary talks with other countries on similar bilateral agreements.
"This is a wonderful model," Mukasey said. "I hope others will follow shortly."
Chertoff added that Europe and the US needed to cooperate in their efforts fighting international terrorism.
"We are indeed fighting a networked, international enemy and, therefore, we have to respond with global networks of our own," Chertoff said. "Today's agreement between the United States and Germany reinforces our collective commitment to combat global terrorism while ensuring robust privacy protection."
Germany hasn't suffered a major attack
The deal comes six months after German authorities made three arrests in an alleged plot to attack US interests and citizens in Germany. US intelligence had passed on information to Berlin on the plan.
Two of the men arrested in September were German converts to Islam and a third was Turkish. All had gone to Pakistan for training and were stockpiling chemicals to make car bombs. Among the targets were US military installations.