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EU police working on large-scale facial biometrics database, report says

EU police working on large-scale facial biometrics database, report says

European law enforcement agencies are allegedly collaborating on building a continent-wide biometric facial recognition database, according to leaked documents from the European Union received by The Intercept from an inside source.

Police forces in EU member states could already access each other’s fingerprint and DNA databases, and in some situations even had access to information from U.S. databases. This new partnership between agencies will provide access to a larger police database of biometric information.

Drafted by 10 member states’ police, guided by Austria, the report states the importance of establishing union-wide legislation to ensure each member state has and allows access to a biometric database. A concerned official has allegedly leaked the report, fearing the data-sharing arrangement will jeopardize biometric data security, following information that it will also be linked to biometric databases in the United States.

The report paints biometric technology as “highly suitable” to identify suspects and pushes for it to be developed “as quickly as possible,” but also acknowledges the importance of data protection safeguards.

The initiative came following interest in further developing the Prüm system which links DNA, fingerprint and vehicle registration information in a common search feature. The U.S. already uses a similar system for countries that are part of its Visa Waiver Program. Law enforcement agencies in the E.U. and U.S. can access each other’s biometric databases. While the FBI has helped a number of states configure their computer networks, Austria, for example, has been running fingerprints against the FBI’s database since 2017, as confirmed by a senior official.

The Intercept reports that based on information from the European Commission, some €700,000 (nearly US$750,000) has been invested in a study conducted by Deloitte on amendments to the Prüm system, including related to biometric facial recognition. Separately, €500,000 was assigned to a group of agencies managed by Estonian Forensic Science Institute to “map the current situation of facial recognition in criminal investigations in all E.U. Member States” and head “towards the possible exchange of facial data.”

With an E.U. law passed in April 2019, five systems were combined to create a database of fingerprints, facial images and personal information belonging to some 300 million non-E.U. nationals. While the new report suggests interlinking all facial databases pertaining to E.U. members, a separate report focused on the Prüm system addresses “a network of interconnected national registers [that] can be regarded as a virtual European register.”

The new report asks Europol to take part in the facial recognition and biometric data sharing system with European countries outside of the E.U.

The FBI and Europol have not commented on the data sharing agreement. Without giving too many details, the European Commission confirmed interest in adding biometric facial recognition to the Prüm network.

The use of facial recognition by police was the subject of a hearing by the Civil Liberties Committee of the European Parliament last week.

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