Billions for Europe’s biometrics giants

All travellers will soon have to submit fingerprints and facial images at the EU’s external borders. For this, large sums of money await companies offering such technologies in each member state. In an „Interoperability Package“, the European Union is spending more money on the systems.

It is estimated that the global market for biometric systems will grow from 28 billion in 2019 to 56 billion Euros in 2024. A large part of this relates to border control technology, including stationary and mobile scanners, sensors, databases, servers and infrastructure for networks. In Europe, this market is dominated by groups such as Idemia, Atos, Sopra Steria (all from France) as well as Accenture (Ireland) and Hewlett Packard (USA). This is how Danish researchers have reconstructed it in a study financed by the EU Commission.

The European Union is paying almost one billion Euros for the expansion of its large migration databases. Some of these information systems are decades old. Some of them have already been renewed, but now they are getting new functions again. In future, the fingerprints and facial images contained in them will be with a „Shared Biometric Matching Service“.

SIS, VIS and Eurodac

The operator of the databases in question is the European Union Agency for the operational management of large-scale IT systems (eu-LISA), based in Tallinn (Estonia). However, they are physically located in France, which is why the agency maintains an operational site in Strasbourg. This is also where the national interfaces converge, which each member state must install in order to participate in the systems.

The oldest database for border control is the Schengen Information System (SIS), which was set up in 1995. Although information on wanted persons, arrest warrants or missing persons is also stored there. However, the entries on persons obliged to leave the country or deportees clearly dominate the approximately one million persons for whom an alert has been issued. Since 2018, the fingerprints contained in the successor system SIS II can be compared; this function is missing for facial images. In the future, however, it will also be possible to search palm prints as well as fingerprints and palm print traces.

With the establishment of eu-Lisa in 2014, the fingerprint identification system Eurodac, which was launched in 2003, was moved from Luxembourg to the data centres in Strasbourg. Biometric data of all asylum seekers over 14 years of age are stored there, as well as third-country nationals and stateless persons. In 2016, the Commission proposed to extend the storage of the information from 18 months to five years and to lower the registration age to six years. However, the EU Parliament made its approval conditional on a comprehensive „reform“ of the asylum system, and in 2020 the Commission presented a proposal for a “ Migration and Asylum Package“ to this end.

In 2011, EU member states launched the Visa Information System (VIS). It is used to store data on applicants for short-term visas; the authorities want to use it to control overstaying. Invitees are also registered there.

303 million for biometric search engine

In its answer to a written question by MEP Patrick Breyer, the Commission gives details of who will benefit from the current contracts. The new search engine for fingerprints and facial images alone costs 303 million Euros. The contract for this „Shared Biometrics Matching System“ was awarded to the companies Idemia and Sopra Steria, about a third of which has already been spent. It is based on an existing system for which the Commission paid 157 million Euros 15 years ago.

The Commission is paying another 442 million Euros to set up a new „Entry/Exit System“ (EES) that will affect all travellers to the European Union. Facilities will be set up at every EU external border on land, sea and air to register facial images and four fingerprints from 2022. These will either be read from biometric ID cards or, if these are not available, captured once at self-service kiosks. Airlines and other transport companies are also connected to the EES via a gateway.

All existing migration-related databases are partially merged and made searchable with a „European Search Portal“. The project is entitled „Interoperability Package“ and includes a „Common Identity Repository“ and a „Multiple Identity Detector“ working in the background. The Commission is spending 187 million Euros on the technical changes required for this. The first components should be available soon. Gradually, those authorised to access the system will be expanded. For example, the agencies Europol and Frontex will be allowed to enter data into the „Identity Repository“.

Manufacturers who received contracts from the EU Commission for the SIS, Eurodac and VIS databases (ADMIGOV).

Image: In order to save border guards work, biometric data is handed in at self-service kiosks (German Federal Police).


Autor: Matthias Monroy

Knowledge worker, activist, editor of the German civil rights journal Bürgerrechte & Polizei/CILIP.