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21st Apr 2019

EU data row over police access to asylum seekers' fingerprints

  • Police could have access to asylum seekers' fingerprints under new EU proposals (Photo: EU's attempts)

A row between the European Commission and the EU's data privacy chief has broken out over plans to give police access to biometric data from the fingerprints of asylum seekers.

In a bluntly worded 20-page report published Wednesday (5 September), Peter Hustinx, European Data Protection Supervisor, accused the EU executive of failing to provide sufficient evidence and justification, stating that the commission should prepare a fresh impact assessment "in which solid evidence and reliable statistics are provided and which includes a fundamental rights assessment."

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The controversy is over the role of EURODAC, the EU-wide fingerprint database, which forms part of the EU's asylum system.

Under the current regime all refugees seeking political asylum in an EU country must provide fingerprints for the system which also contains biometric fingerprint information taken from illegal immigrants. Critics argue that the system, which covers asylum seekers as young as 14, breaches the EU's Fundamental Rights charter.

The database was originally created to prevent multiple claims for asylum being lodged in different member states with no country taking responsibility for the application. Each set of fingerprint data can be compared with fingerprint data already stored in EURODAC to see if an asylum seeker has previously lodged an asylum claim in one or more other member states or has entered EU territory.

Now the commission wants to widen the scope of the legislation, allowing national law enforcement authorities and the European police service Europol to access the EURODAC central database for the purposes of prevention, detection and investigation of terrorist offences and other serious criminal offences.

On publishing the proposals in May, Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Mälmstrom defended the changes insisting that they would operate only under "very limited and specific circumstances" for serious crimes such as murder and terrorism, adding that "it will only be possible to make searches on a hit/no hit basis and a EURODAC check can only be made if prior searches in national or member states' databases do not yield results."

But in a press statement accompanying his report, Hustinx, who acts as advisor to the EU institutions on data privacy but does not have blocking powers, asserted that the commission proposal would "intrude upon the privacy of individuals and risk stigmatising them" adding that the EU executive had "simply not provided sufficient reason why asylum seekers should be singled out for such treatment."

Malmström's spokesman Michele Cercone played down the disagreement, insisting that his commission "has shown every intention to include all possible safeguards including data protection and privacy.”

“We welcome the report of the EDPS and will consider it thoroughly in the context of the pending negotiations with Council and the European Parliament,” he added.

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