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EU to implement border checks similar to US

October 25, 2017

The EU will soon establish a database of fingerprints and other biometric data for visitors from the US and other countries outside the bloc. The move aims to improve security, but some see an attack on human rights.

A person holds both thumps against an electronic fingerprint scanner
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/T. Hase

Non-Americans traveling to the United States will be familiar with the procedure: once you arrive, you have to go through immigration where you'll be finger-printed and a picture of your face is taken. Now the European Union wants to introduce similar security measures for all travelers from non-member states who enter the EU for business or pleasure.

On Wednesday, lawmakers in the EU Parliament voted in favor of a new Entry-Exit System (EES) that calls for third-country nationals entering the EU to be fingerprinted and photographed at the border. This biometric data, along with the personal information on their travel documents as well as entry, exit or refusal of entry information, will be stored for up to four years and will be accessible to law enforcement, border control and visa authorities. In addition to EU nationals, citizens of countries in the Schengen Zone of visa-free travel will be exempt from the new system.

A German police officer looking at a passport
An EU database would store a person's passport information for up to four yearsImage: picture alliance/dpa/M. Becker

Supporters of the regulation say the EES will make immigration more efficient for travelers and help authorities detect if someone is overstaying their visa in the EU.

Monika Hohlmeier, a German member of the European People's Party (EPP), said she was in favor of adopting the EES because it would make it easier to determine who is in the EU legally at any given time — and who needed to leave.

Dimitris Avramopoulos, the European commissioner for migration, said EU authorities "need to know exactly who is entering the EU."

The system is also supposed to increase security in the EU, since the passenger data would be available to EUROPOL, where it would serve "to prevent, detect and investigate terrorist offenses or other serious crimes on certain specified conditions," an explanatory text on the EU Parliament's website states.

Conflict with data protection and privacy rights

Juncker giving a speech at the EU Parliament
Juncker is in favor of the contentious EESImage: Reuters/C. Hartmann

In his 2017 State of the Union Letter of Intent, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker had called upon the European Parliament and the Council to pass the EES by the end of 2018. Now the system is set to start operations in 2020 after receiving approval from EU member state leaders.

While the EU's estimate said the project will cost €480 million ($567 million), critics have said the final costs could be more than twice as high.

"We are in dire need of more funding in the EU to surveil actually suspicious people, not irrelevant, innocent ones," Jan Philipp Albrecht, a member of the Greens in the European Parliament, told DW.

Cost is only one issue critics have with the new system. In September 2016, the office of the European Data Protection Supervisor warned that the EES data storage could be intrusive and not in accordance with the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.

A study commissioned by the Greens/ European Free Alliance group in the EU Parliament and conducted by the University of Luxembourg went one step further. Its authors found the EES would violate fundamental EU rights by indiscriminately gathering travelers' information regardless of whether they were suspected of a crime and by storing the data long after a visitor's stay in the EU had come to an end.

Albrecht said adopting these regulations for non-EU travelers is a clear act of hypocrisy. In July, the European Court of Justice had clarified that Canada would not be allowed to store data of EU travelers that was gathered at immigration.

Personal and biometric information has to be deleted as soon as the traveler's stay in Canada is over, unless there's objective evidence of criminal activity or reasonable suspicion of terrorism, according to the European court.

"I can't believe that EU law restricts what Canadian authorities can do with EU citizens' data more than what EU authorities can do with Canadians' data," Albrecht said.

Fundamental rights in the European Union, including the right to privacy and the right to protection of one's personal data, are granted to all people independent of their citizenship — not just EU citizens. 

A double-standard in the EU

Jan Philipp Albrecht
Albrecht: The EES prioritizes the wrong thingsImage: picture-alliance/dpa/F. Schumann

Albrecht said instead of introducing a new, expensive and potentially illegal system, the EU should improve one that is already in place.

"We do have the Schengen Information System, which covers the data of suspicious and risky persons," he said. "Whenever someone crosses into the Schengen area, their passport is checked against this database. We need to improve this so that more member states exchange more relevant data about suspects and criminals. But instead we're investing in a new system."

The EU parliamentarian also criticized the double-standard that he said is developing in the EU.  

"Many people over the last years told me they were very upset about the fact that they were subject to blanket suspicion when traveling to the United States, for example, or about the wide-spread NSA surveillance," Albrecht said. "When we are subject to an unproportionate invasion of our privacy, that's absolutely wrong. But if it's us doing the same thing to other people in the world, then we don't care."

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Carla Bleiker
Carla Bleiker Editor, channel manager and reporter focusing on US politics and science@cbleiker