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24th Jul 2021

Virtual biometric frontier awaits travellers to EU

  • 200 million non-EU nationals passed through the EU border points last year (Photo: Khairil Zhafri)

The EU commission says setting up a virtual frontier for all visiting non-EU nationals will help create a more “welcoming” Europe.

Fingerprints and or full facial captures may await future visitors to the EU when the Brussels-executive proposes a revised version early next year of its controversial 2013 ‘smart borders’ package.

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EU migration affairs commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos on Monday (23 February) said the digital dragnet would help make Europe a more attractive destination by cutting down border crossing times and cracking down on others who “do not respect the conditions of their rights to stay”.

Disembarking travellers from long-haul trans-Atlantic flights, for example, would be required upon arrival to give border guards biometric data sets.

'Indiscriminate collection of data'

But not everyone is convinced by the plans. One of the parliament’s lead negotiators on the file, Slovenian centre-left Tanja Fajon, said that the “indiscriminate mass collection of data without a specific just cause must be a concern for all of us”.

The initial idea proposed creating a two-tiered system of biometric scans of visiting non-EU nationals – the registered travellers programme (RTP) and the entry-exit system (EES).

Both systems rely on collecting, storing, and processing biometric data and are designed for visitors, like US travellers, who do not need a visa to enter the EU in the first place.

While people under EES would have their biometric checks at arrival, the RTP pre-vets frequent travelers in advance who can then pass through the control points with a special card.

But outstanding issues of costs, access to law enforcement, estimated border crossing times, and the amount of data to be collected remain.

Despite the plan having been temporarily shelved, the EU is still moving ahead with a multimillion euro “proof of concept” test set for launch in mid-March at a half dozen airports and other sea, train and road points.

Fajon said it is still unclear to what extent member states actually use existing information systems and if the almost €1 billion needed for smart borders is worth the investment.

Schengen states already have at their disposal a central IT system that allows national authorities to exchange traveller visa information known as the EU’s visa information system (VIS).

An EU-funded study last October on smart borders noted VIS averaged only 11 search queries and five retrievals per day in the first half of 2014 from all national law enforcement points combined.

The same study, which is feeding into the commission’s policy deliberations on the revised proposal, recommends integrating parts of the visa information system into a package alongside the entry-exit system and the registered travel system.

The study also recommended extending the retention period from the initially-proposed six months in the entry-exit system to up to five years should police be granted access.

“When law enforcement access would be allowed to the system it would be of very limited interest if the data retention period is only up to six months,” said Rob Rozenburg, an EU commission official in charge of the study.

Police access

The possibility of police access has sparked debates over privacy concerns.

Avramopoulos, who was addressing several dozen MPs from around the EU, Norway, Switzerland, and Turkey at the European parliament’s civil liberties committee, said the issue is still an open question.

But most of the visiting MPs who spoke out at Monday’s session want it included.

Thirteen member states in the border-free Schengen zone, as well as the UK, already operate their own entry-exit systems.

These systems are not connected and are unable to detect someone who enters one member state and leaves from another.

Supporters also say the system is needed because the number of people travelling to Europe is set to increase, putting an additional strain on border control points.

Just under 200 million non-EU nationals visited the EU last year.

“We expect that in the next decade, this number will grow by at least another 100 million,” said Avramopoulos.

US travellers set for EU biometric dragnet

Non-EU nationals who enter Europe will be asked to have their faces image-captured and fingerprints scanned upon arrival. The scheme is voluntary for now but may become obligatory.

Doubts over EU Parliament's new 'fingerprint' plan

The European Parliament's plans to replace the current paper-based MEPs attendance control system with a digital register, based on a fingerprint scanner, raises "critical concerns", the EU data protection watchdog has warned.

EU ministers to discuss 'smart borders'

EU ministers in Luxembourg Thursday will discuss how to use technology and whether to set up an EU border guard corps to better secure external borders.

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