Tuesday

22nd Oct 2019

Investigation

'Virtual borders' scheme to track every non-EU citizen

  • The twenty busiest airports in the EU are the entry points for 30 percent of third-country nationals entering the Union (Photo: angeloangelo)

The European Commission wants to fingerprint anyone who enters the EU under its "smart borders" proposal, but critics say it is too costly, disproportionate, and risks violating numerous privacy rights.

The commission says the system is necessary to update border control checks, reduce waiting times, and help border guards better implement EU border rules by pooling the personal details of any non-EU citizen over the age of 12 into a database.

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All 10 finger prints would be scanned to ensure that anyone who tosses their ID can still be identified if necessary.

The package includes the Entry/Exit system and the Registered Travellers Programme (RTP). RTP is reserved for a more privileged frequent visitor to the EU, such as business people or researchers.

People in the RTP would pay a €20 registration fee, get their fingers print scanned, and then, in theory, quickly cross the EU border with a special token valid for one year.

EES, the more controversial of the two systems, is for everyone else.

It automatically presumes someone has stayed beyond their visa limits but without knowing the cause. A person in a coma or undergoing medical treatment, for instance, is not spared.

The system doesn't know where the overstayer is located but a Lithuanian state border guard director told this website there are ways to track down the offender. He said police in Lithuania have "special arrangements" with hotels to locate them.

He noted that law enforcement in other member states have similar agreements.

Critics point out that some irregular migrants cross clandestinely to avoid detection and would not volunteer their fingerprints in the first place.

They also note that the centralised premise of the system is flawed because there are no EU-wide rules in place on how to respond to people who over stay their visa.

“If we don’t have a common policy, then there is little point in having a common database[…] people’s pensions are being cut, people don’t have access to health care, how are we going to say to these people that you have to stump up for a one billion euro statistics system, how are we going to explain that to young unemployed people?” said German Green MEP Ska Keller.

They say existing systems are already in place, which perform the same or similar functions, rendering the €1-billion-plus smart border proposal redundant in times of economic and social crisis.

Law enforcement

Meanwhile, a core group of member states are already pushing to get law enforcement access to the system, set for launch either in 2015 or 2016, depending on the legislative resistance met from sceptical MEPs and civil rights groups.

Police are interested because the EES is projected to collect the data of some 269 million people, every year, after the first five years of operation.

The commission’s proposal does not spell out law enforcement access but instead says the idea can be re-evaluated two years after the operational launch.

German centre-right MEP Renate Sommer, who leads the parliament on the EES file, is in favour of allowing police access right from the start.

A working group at the Council has also already prepared all the legal and technical arguments in favour.

Police digging into sensitive databases for their own personal use has generated controversy in the past.

Alan Shatter, the Irish Minister of Justice, slammed the Irish police in April for using a police database “as some sort of social network to be accessed out of curiosity by members of the Force.”

The French interior ministry has a database called Oscar that allegedly contains the details of every Roma it kicks out the country, according to French Human Rights League and Gisti, a non-profit organisation specialising in immigration rights.

Swedish media say police also operate an ethnic-centric database that collects all the data on Roma who live in the country.

For his part, the European Data Protection Supervisor Peter Hustinx, described the EES as “costly, unproven, and intrusive”.

He has recommended first evaluating existing systems like the Visa Information System (VIS) before launching another.

VIS allows authorities to look at a traveller's visa application history and determines whether the person presenting the visa at the border is the same person to whom the visa has been issued. The commission says VIS does not track the entry and exit of the person travelling into and out of the EU unlike their 'smart border' idea.

The EDPS says EES will violate the right to privacy and family life, the right to data protection, and raises serious doubts into why the system is needed in the first place.

The Stockholm programme, which laid out the justice priorities for the EU, notes that new systems should only be developed if it is established that existing systems are not sufficient.

The European Commission has a mixed record on the issue.

Ballooning costs

Doubts over the border management system first surfaced in 2004 when the idea was dismissed altogether because it framed innocent foreigners as suspects into crimes that haven’t been committed.

It was then introduced again in 2008, with EES and RTP appearing for the first time among the proposals.

Pressure from a core group of member states, including Germany, the Netherlands, and the UK, helped silence the dissenters, despite the enormous costs involved.

At the time, the commission estimated total operational costs to be €135 million. This ballooned 10-fold in a communication published three years later in October 2011.

Romanian centre-left MEP Ioan Enciu, the parliament’s lead negotiator on RTP, said the real amount for both proposals has now increased by over €300 million.

“The decision to allocate €1.35 billion to develop ‘smart borders’ should not be taken without careful assessment,” he noted.

Ben Hayes, of the London-based civil liberties group Statewatch, describes it as “the most expensive exercise to collect migration statistics in the history of the world.”

The EU, for its part, already has some 25 data disparate processing systems across member states to help catch people suspected of a crime, to kick out undesirable, or 'illegal,’ immigrants, and stop terrorists from mass killings.

“In some cases they have multiple purposes for one system so there is a security interrogation here that has to do with the way we envisage law enforcement and security in the EU over the last two decades,” said Julien Jeandesboz, an expert on EU border control at Amsterdam University.

The amount of data collected and processed by some are impressive.

Eurodac, a system that compares fingerprints of asylum seekers, collected 1.7 million records on average per year between 2004 and 2011.

Lawmakers recently decided to allow police access to the system.

The Passenger Name Records (PNR), which requires airlines to share your data with US authorities and some other states, collects around 500 million records every year.

The commission projects that VIS, when fully operational, will collect 20 million records after year one and around 70 to 80 million after five years.

Europe’s largest information system for public security, the Schengen Information System (SIS), collects an estimated 900,000 records per year on persons who are to be refused entry into the EU.

The second generation of the system went live in April.

Francois Crepeaux, the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, said SIS is unable to respond to administrative mistakes and provides little judicial redress.

“If you are told your name appears on SIS, you don’t know necessarily what country has put your name on SIS, you don’t know why, how can you respond, how can you defend yourself, how can you express your rights,” he says.

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