By Ellen Nakashima and John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, February 12, 2008
The European Commission will propose tomorrow that all foreign travelers entering and leaving Europe, including U.S. citizens, should be fingerprinted. If approved by the European Parliament, the measure would mean that precisely identifying information on tens of millions of citizens will be added in coming years to databases that could be shared by friendly governments around the world.
The United States already requires that foreigners be fingerprinted and photographed before they enter the country. So does Japan. Now top European security officials want to follow suit, with travelers being fingerprinted and some also having their facial images stored in a Europe-wide database, according to a copy of the proposal obtained by The Washington Post.
The plan is part of a vast and growing trend on both sides of the Atlantic to collect and share data electronically to identify and track people in the name of national security and immigration control. U.S. government computers now have access to data on financial transactions; air travel details such as name, itinerary and credit card numbers; and the names of those sending and receiving express-mail packages -- even a description of the contents.
"It's the only way to be really sure about identifying people," said a European Commission official familiar with the new fingerprinting plan. "With biometric data, it's much easier to track people and know who has come in and who has gone out, including possible terrorists," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak publicly.
The timing and logistics of the plan remain uncertain, but it would probably not start for at least a year. Travelers' fingerprints would probably be taken upon arrival and then checked against a database, the official said. That, initially at least, would mean airports where fingerprints would be scanned electronically, the European official said.
"It seems like a steamroller," said Sophie in 't Veld, a Dutch member of parliament who follows privacy and security issues. "There is a new trend in particular in the U.S., the E.U. and Australia to register every single detail of our life. We're tagged. They can follow everything we do. They know where we are. The whole question is: What for? Does this actually make the world a safer place?"
The Bush administration says it does.
"Not only do we support these measures, we applaud them," said Russ Knocke, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security. "Measures like fingerprint and passenger-data collection can disrupt the ability of terrorists to move easily across international borders. They also serve to protect American citizens traveling overseas."
DHS already has a database of 85 million sets of fingerprints collected, for instance, from U.S. and foreign travelers stopped at the border for criminal violations, or for U.S. citizens adopting a child overseas. The FBI is building a huge biometric database for criminal justice purposes. All are supposed to be built to the same standards so data queries can be easily exchanged.
The "common ambition across the Atlantic," the European official said, is to achieve "as much interoperability as possible," through common technical standards for fingerprints and facial images. He said strict European data-protection laws would have to be respected before any sharing took place.
The proposal is part of a broader package of measures to strengthen the European entry and exit system so officials can know exactly who is in their country. The United States has a similar entry program and has piloted an exit program, but does not yet automatically track those leaving the country. The measures are also aimed at easing border crossings for law-abiding travelers.
The new European proposals nearly match initiatives undertaken in the United States to screen out terrorists, people who overstay their visas and others.
For several years, the United States has required that airlines that fly into the country transmit detailed passenger data before the flight's arrival. In November, the European Commission, the E.U.'s executive arm, issued the same proposal. The United States is working on an electronic travel authorization system, requiring travelers from countries where visas are not required to visit here to submit identification and travel details before departure. Now the commission is proposing something similar.
Armed guards in plainclothes already sit on flights to and from Europe and within Europe, but the United States wants to be able to put air marshals on many more flights from Europe, DHS spokesman Knocke said. The Bush administration is negotiating this with individual European states.
European privacy advocate Simon Davies said European officials are "blindly following" the United States "without the slightest commitment to openness or accountability."
The problem with border fingerprint systems is that their success rate diminishes as they grow, said Davies, director of the London-based Privacy International. "Adding a hundred million fingerprints of dubious quality on top of an inaccurate database will exponentially increase the failure rate," he said.
About 13 million U.S. citizens fly from the United States to Europe each year, according to the International Air Transport Association. David Stempler, president of the Potomac-based Air Travelers Association, said he has no problem with the proposal, given that the United States requires something similar. "So what's good for the goose is good for the gander," he said.
But Susan Gurley, executive director of the Association of Corporate Travel Executives, which represents 2,500 business executives in the United States and abroad, said that such a database poses the risk of abuse. "Unauthorized access to info of this nature could reveal executive travel patterns," she said. "It's another way to know what you're doing and where you are going."
Anderson reported from Paris. Staff writer Spencer S. Hsu contributed to this report.