Meeting in Washington: EU plans biometric super database

The European Entry/Exit System will go live next spring. It is expected to surpass the world’s largest police biometric database in the US.

With the Agency for the operational management of large-scale IT systems (eu-LISA) and Frontex, two EU agencies are responsible for controls at European external borders. In the area of research and development, both work closely together to keep their technical applications up-to-date and to introduce innovations. Biometric applications are currently in particular focus: The European Union will start operating a new Entry/Exit system in May 2023, which will process and store four fingerprints and facial images of all third state travellers at the external borders.

Such biometric surveillance comes with new difficulties. Especially at land borders, the authorities expect longer queues when, for example, several car occupants or coach passengers have to submit fingerprints and facial images at the same time. Travellers will also have to put up with longer waiting times at airports and enter their biometric data at self-service kiosks.

US authorities also set up new biometric system

American authorities already have tested techniques for this, also there an Entry/Exit system is currently being set up. On 6 and 7 June this year, representatives of eu-LISA and Frontex therefore travelled to Washington to exchange views on the applications.

The two agencies were accompanied on their US visit by Greek, Polish and Romanian „border protection and law enforcement agencies“. This emerged from a Freedom of Information request.

Following this request, Frontex has released the mission report for the trip. Accordingly, meetings were held with the United States Customs and Border Protection, under the Department of Homeland Security.

Biometric tests at external borders

Also present in Washington was the director of eu-LISA, Krum Garkov, who has been in office since his agency was founded ten years ago. Meetings were held with high-level representatives of US departments whose agencies are responsible for intercepting travellers or biometrics programmes used there, according to the agenda also published.

The US Border Patrol has shared with its EU partners the results of its pilot project at the US-Mexico border. There, procedures were tested to scan the faces of occupants of a vehicle without them having to get out of the car. The rate of correct recognition of the persons is said to have been about 40 per cent in the beginning, but only increased to 76 per cent with a second camera.

Eu-LISA Director Garkov claimed in Washington that a similar project for the European entry/exit system had shown that „the public“ found it a more convenient way to travel when biometrics were used as an identifier.

Garkov did not specify which project was meant. Corresponding tests by Frontex have taken place at the EU’s external borders with Gibraltar and Turkey, in Bulgaria and Spain. The results have not yet been made public. Thus, the claim about the allegedly willing disclosure of biometric data cannot be verified.

From check-in to boarding in the blockchain

During their mission to Washington, eu-LISA and Frontex learned about further innovations of the border authorities there. The Transport Security Agency, for example, is working on a concept for border management that is also based on blockchain. This would store all the data involved in the pre-registration of passenger data by the airlines, through check-in to the actual boarding of the plane.

Travellers can opt out of using blockchain technology, but will then „need to go through a more time-consuming process“. Similarly, authorities on both sides of the Atlantic have already introduced other, ostensibly „voluntary“ biometric matching systems or even body scanners.

Now passengers are due to register and authenticate themselves via an app on their mobile phones before crossing the border. eu-LISA and Frontex have also discussed this with the US authorities, where such a system is already used in the Trusted Traveller programme at the land border. Frontex has tested the same in its pilot project in Bulgaria.

Use of algorithms for border control

In the United States, algorithms are already used for automated border control, but in the European Union this could be excluded as a „high-risk application“ under the proposed AI Act by the EU Commission. However, according to its director, eu-LISA „will grow into a centre of excellence for artificial intelligence in the coming years“, the mission report states.

In the area of screening, such systems are already used in Europe with anonymised data, and they are also used for chatbots. The EU agencies have therefore also informed themselves about this in Washington. At US authorities, for example, a special „team of experts“ is responsible for incorporating false hits into algorithms in order to train them.

The biometric data collections have met with criticism from civil rights activists, as the US Border Patrol also admits to the EU visit. According to the report, there have been „issues with privacy advocacy groups in the past“. In the EU, however, criticism of the Entry/Exit system seven months before it goes into operation is hardly an issue at the moment.

World’s largest collection of biometric data

In a brochure, some of the presumably feared privacy advocacy groups in the United States have explained their numerous points of criticism, including the considerable expansion of surveillance capacities of all police and border authorities. The new biometric systems could enable even more discriminatory policing and violate the rights of hundreds of millions of people.

In any case, this criticism is also likely to apply to the EU Entry/Exit system. According to the mission report, eu-LISA Director Garkov expects it to create the world’s largest collection of biometric data in the area of border control. While the large US biometric system currently stores about 275 million people, the EU traveller database is estimated to contain records of about 400 million people.

Image: German border controls are also becoming increasingly automated (Federal Police).


Autor: Matthias Monroy

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

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