New EU information system: EU member states push for police use of biometric repository

The EU is merging biometric data from different databases into a „Common Identity Repository“. Security authorities are to use it to compare fingerprints and facial images. This will affect tourists, business travellers and refugees from third countries.

If the European „Entry/Exit System“ (EES) goes into operation as planned in four months, all travellers will have to provide fingerprints and facial images when crossing an EU external border. This database is now to be used increasingly by security authorities. The EU interior ministers want to adopt conclusions on this in the Council. The British civil rights organisation Statewatch has published a draft of these conclusions.

The coveted data will be stored in a „Common Identity Repository“ (CIR), which, according to current plans, will be launched in a year’s time. The planned conclusions call on member states to enact laws allowing biometric searches, „in particular for the purpose of facilitating the correct identification of persons“.

Biometric interrogation also of minors

The conclusions refer to the Regulation establishing a framework for interoperability between EU information systems in the areas of borders and visas, adopted by the EU in 2019. There, the establishment of the „Common Identity Repository“ is determined. It consists of data on hundreds of millions of foreign nationals from the EES as well as from four other existing EU databases. All non-EU travellers and asylum seekers are stored.

Article 20 of this „Interoperability Regulation“ stipulates biometric searches by police authorities. This is possible, among other things, for young people and adults, for example if there are doubts about the identity or authenticity of travellers‘ documents.

The biometric checks are not to take place at a police station, but „directly on the spot“ at the land, air or sea border. All Schengen states must procure the necessary technology, including fingerprint readers, face scanners and the necessary server infrastructure to connect to the EES. The conclusions are intended to build up corresponding pressure, because the commissioning of the EES in September is on shaky ground due to interrupted supply chains and a lack of chips.

Biometric search also in case of terrorist attack or natural disaster

However, a search in the „Common Identity Repository“ may also be carried out for other purposes that do not concern entry or exit. Article 20 states that security authorities may enter fingerprints and facial images into the system to identify persons in the event of a natural disaster, accident or terrorist attack. Biometric data of human remains can also be searched in this way.

Finally, the search in the biometric repository with mobile devices should also be possible at the internal borders or in the territory of the Schengen states.

However, the Council avoids narrow specifications in this regard. Instead, draft „invites Member States to consider whether their national law allow“ such a procedure.

Germany ranks second in clandestine searches

The conclusions also call for clandestine searches using the Schengen Information System (SIS II). According to Article 36 of the SIS II Council Decision, a person can be secretly tracked using the category „discret check“. Whenever they are checked when crossing the border or in the Schengen area, the interested authority receives a notification. In this way, police and secret services can track travel movements and contact persons.

These clandestine searches still increase significantly every year, with France again in first place last year with around 52,000 alerts, followed by the UK before Brexit. In the meantime, German authorities are in second place. This level should now also be reached by the other member states: The conclusions call for „full use“ of this type of control.

Also possible is a „investigative check“, where the person can be questioned or searched. Here, too, France is in the lead with about 51,000 entries, Germany is in third place after Spain.

Reform of the Schengen Borders Code

Statewatch suspects that the planned conclusions are aimed at increased dragnets at internal borders to detect unregistered refugees.

In 2017, in the wake of the so-called „migration crisis“, the EU Commission published a recommendation calling for an „intensification of police checks in the entire territory of Member States, including in border areas and the carrying-out of police checks along the main transport routes such as motorways and railways“.

Five years later, this recommendation is now to become law. The EU is currently discussing proposals to reform the Schengen Borders Code, which „removes obstacles for a more extensive use of monitoring and surveillance technologies“. Explicitly, these technologies should then also be allowed to be used at internal borders that are actually free of controls.

Image: In addition to stationary biometric systems, states should also procure mobile scanners (Frontex).

Autor: Matthias Monroy

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