An EU agency is building a recognition system with biometric data on 400 million travellers. The contractors seem to have overstretched themselves
In future, anyone wishing to enter the European Union without a visa will have to register in a European Travel Information and Authorisation System (ETIAS) via a form on the internet, providing information on the purpose and course of the journey. Only with a travel authorisation can the border be crossed. In an Entry/Exit System (EES), all travellers must then submit four fingerprints and a facial image. The biometric data will end up in a huge archive that will be merged with other databases.
In the EU, the introduction of the new information systems is known as Interoperability. Various difficulties in implementation have already delayed the project by several months, and now more complications are on the horizon. This is stated in a presentation by the French Council Presidency, published by the British civil rights organisation Statewatch. According to it, a questionnaire answered by 24 EU member states showed delays in several countries.
„Substantially underestimated the complexity of the work“
Problems with the implementation of the entry-exit system, according to the document, are caused by the global shortage of chips and the training of staff responsible for taking biometric data at the external land, sea and air borders. The commissioning of the EES, planned for the end of September 2022, could therefore be delayed by another two months.
To implement the Entry/Exit System, the Agency for the operational management of large-scale IT systems (eu-LISA), which is responsible for large EU databases, has contracted a consortium of IBM, ATOS and Leonardo. However, they are said not to have fulfilled their tasks of developing and testing the EES central system as agreed, the agency wrote last December in response to a parliamentary question by MEP Patrick Breyer.
The consortium had „substantially underestimated the complexity of the work for development and implementation of EES“, the letter said. The staff lacked „relevant expertise“.
Border crossing as contactless as possible
The Entry/Exit System significantly increases the time spent checking travellers from non-EU countries. Member states are expected to compensate for this by introducing automated procedures and self-service kiosks. According to Frontex Director Fabrice Leggeri, 1,892 official land, air and sea border crossings need to be equipped with appropriate technology.
However, especially at land borders, biometric kiosks are extremely impractical when the people inside a vehicle have to get out and give their fingerprints and facial images themselves. The EU Commission is therefore researching methods for contactless border crossing for car passengers as well. A camera scans the faces while the driver inserts all travel documents into a scanner. Another camera will scan the number plate. If the information matches pre-registered data, the border opens. The system is also supposed to work for bus journeys.
Disruptions also at ETIAS
Any delay in the implementation of the Entry/Exit System would hamper the commissioning of the European Travel Information and Authorisation System targeted for March 2023 and trigger a domino effect, the Portuguese Presidency warned a year ago. This is because only after the EES has been running stably for six months can the ETIAS go into operation.
All travellers entering the Schengen area for a visa-free short stay must register online via an ETIAS form a few days before crossing the border. The information is checked automatically, after which the system issues either clearance or a challengeable refusal of entry.
The ETIAS regulation imposes new obligations and costs especially on providers of air, sea, train or bus travel. They are supposed to check whether passengers have a valid travel authorisation before they start their journey. For this purpose, the companies will have access to the ETIAS central system. Last month, initial tests on this were to begin, but these too have been delayed due to disrupted supply chains.
Biometric functions in SIS II
ETIAS and the EES are entirely new systems. But the Interoperability project also includes the renewal of the Schengen Information System (SIS II). This is the largest police database in the EU, in which around one million people are stored. Alerts can be issued for the arrest or discreet surveillance of EU citizens, for example, but about half of the alerts concern migrants who are obliged to leave the country or re-entry bans.
The new SIS II Regulation was already adopted in 2018 and considerably expands the scope of the system. In addition to new categories of alerts, the SIS II has also been given biometric functions. Meanwhile, fingerprints contained in the file can be searched, each Schengen state must now technically implement this possibility.
According to the original plans, the new system should be operational on 14 June, but now there is a delay of three months. Facial images, non-coding DNA data and palm prints can now also be stored in the SIS II, but as an attachment to a person file they are not yet searchable.
Matching system for €300 million
In the Interoperability project, fingerprints and facial images from the EES will be merged into a Common Identity Register. Biometric data from the Visa Information System (VIS) and the asylum fingerprint file Eurodac will also be integrated, as well as a new EU criminal record for third-country nationals (ECRIS-TCN). They can be searched with a Common Biometric Matching System, the technology is expected to cost around €300 million.
Next year, a European Search Portal will follow, with which all EU biometric systems can be queried with one click. A Multiple Identity Detector will then run in the background to find and report already existing entries.
Once all existing and future EU biometric databases have been merged, the Biometric Matching System will contain fingerprints and facial images of more than 400 million people from third countries, writes Sopra Steria, one of the contractors for the project. The firm calls this a „cornerstone for the protection of European borders“.
It will not stop there, as the EU is currently setting up system to query facial images from EU citizens as well. In addition, the United States is now pushing European governments for access to their national biometric databases to use for US border control.
Image: EU research project testing contactless border control (SMILE).