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Fingerprint fight

Rayna Breuer / cd
December 20, 2012

EU law enforcement agencies would like access to a database with fingerprint information provided by asylum seekers. Human rights groups call the idea an attack on the human rights of a group that needs protecting.

A large, glowing fingerprint is lit from below by a blue scanner (Photo: © itestro #26269271)
Image: itestro/Fotolia.com

Authorities in European Union member states are expected to follow the European Commission's recent suggestion that fingerprints from asylum seekers be registered in the EU's fingerprint database, called Eurodac.

The database was originally established in 2000 so EU nations could check whether an asylum seeker had previously applied for asylum in another European country or was receiving social benefits from another EU country. According to EU law, asylum seekers can apply for asylum only in the EU nation where they first entered the bloc.

Yet such a rich source of existing data has recently sparked the interest of other parties. If the EU Commission's requests are followed, Eurodac fingerprint data will be accessible to police officers during investigations. The commission's proposal envisions national law enforcement agencies and Europe's supranational criminal police commission, Interpol, being able to access the database.

But data protection advocates as well as human rights organizations have expressed their discontent with the plan to expand access to Eurodac.

A Middle-Eastern woman wearing a headscarf peeks her head around the corner in the hall of a public building (Photo: Patrick Pleul dpa/lbn)
An asylum seeker at the immigration office in the German state of BrandenburgImage: picture-alliance/ZB

The measurement of a finger

"Just because data is being collected doesn't mean that it should be used for another purpose, especially since that can have a hugely negative effect on the lives of individuals," said Peter Hustinx, head of the European Data Protection Supervisor.

He said he is concerned that asylum seekers will be marginalized and ultimately stigmatized if wider access to their data becomes available. He also said the Commission had not presented adequate grounds for going forward with its proposal.

A gray-haired man raises his right hand argumentatively. (Photo: EPA/FRANCOIS WALSCHAERTS)
The Dutch Peter Hustinx fights for data protection in BrusselsImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The European Parliament's Civil Liberties and Home Affairs Committee came out in favor of the use of Eurodac data by law enforcement officials. In doing so, however, they went against both the Greens and other left-leaning representatives.

"We find that the new Eurodac reforms will stigmatize asylum seekers," Ska Keller, a member of the Green Party in EU Parliament, told DW. "They'll be lumped together with serious criminals."

Karl Kopp, from the German asylum organization Pro Asyl, went a step further. He called the EU Commission's proposal nothing less than "fatal" - a disaster for data privacy and discriminatory against asylum seekers.

"Those seeking protection will come under general suspicion due to this proposal," Kopp said.

Criminal investigators can already transcend national borders in their investigations by requesting fingerprints and criminal files from other EU member states. Kopp said that is enough.

"The Commission has given no proof that the current instruments at their disposal are not sufficient, nor has it shown any material basis which demonstrates a need to access asylum data," the European Data Protection Supervisor said in a statement.

Access, yes, but limited

Others, however, expressed support the Commission's plan.

"The regulation will increase security in the EU," said Monica Luisa Macovei, a Romanian member of European Parliament. "We don't assume that the people who are registered in Eurodac have broken the law. It has nothing to do with discrimination or stigmatization."

She said she found it difficult to understand critics' arguments as access to the database will be extremely limited.

A man with long hair ponytailed behind his head and an orange scarf smiles at the camera (Photo: no data)
Karl Kopp of Pro Asylum sees nothing good in the new proposalImage: PRO ASYL

"When German law enforcement agencies come into possession of a fingerprint, for example, whether investigating a criminal act or terrorist attack, and they then find no match in their own databases or in other EU countries, only then can they send the fingerprints to Eurodac," Macovei told DW. "But they have no direct access to the EU database,"

The Commission's proposal prohibits Eurodac employees from divulging the names of anyone under suspicion. Tests will be run to see if there's a fingerprint match within the EU, and, if yes, from which country that fingerprint originated. It would then be up to the individual states to decide how to and whether to exchange information.

Further EU plans

The EU Commission's proposals address more than Eurodac, a fact that brought additional criticism.

A woman with short-cropped brown hair and a business jacket on smiles as she speaks to someone off camera. (Photo: Bernd Settnik/dpa)
Ska Keller is a state national chairwoman for the Green PartyImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"The Commission would generally like to widen its collection of data and make available any information regarding criminal prosecutions," Keller said. "One example is the so-called 'Smart Borders' package, which actually wasn't proposed this round but has been in the pipeline for a long time. The idea there is that in the future anyone from non-EU countries that would like to travel into the EU will be recorded electronically, which also includes fingerprints."

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