US ‘signs deal to receive UK police biometrics,’ pressures EU countries to follow suit
The UK government has agreed to share records from its police biometrics database with U.S. border guards as part of a new scheme to push all 40 countries whose citizens can currently enter the U.S without a visa to share more records to inform decision-making for entry by 2026.
EU countries are the next targets for the U.S., in a move a Member of the European Parliament describes as “blackmail.” The scheme is being welcomed by some in the U.S. for its promise of enhanced security.
More than biometrics would have to be shared. For example, a UK citizen who took four people hostage in a Texas synagogue had been deemed not a risk by British intelligence. For his or anyone else’s biometrics to be shared, a new understanding of what is pertinent would also have to be reached.
News leaked in an informal EU meeting
The Register reported that the news emerged that the UK has already signed up to the Enhanced Border Security Partnership (EBSP) when the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) divulged the information when it held an informal meeting in June with the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE). As have three unnamed EU countries.
The DHS presented the scheme in the meeting and a representative of the EU Commission expressed criticism of the approach of the U.S., stating it was deliberately undermining European treaties by seeking direct agreements with individual member states, noted Patrick Breyer MEP, who referred to the project as International Biometric Information Sharing (IBIS).
Acceptance onto the current visa waiver program has been at a country-by-country level. The UK was the first to join, in 1988, and Croatia most recently in 2021. Canadians enjoy visa-free entry.
In an email to Biometric Update, Dr. Breyer said it is “being debated/unclear, what the EU’s competences in the field are. But politically I’d exclude that the Commission would challenge Member States over these national agreements.”
Previous reporting from Netzpolitik suggest the U.S. would require face and fingerprint biometrics as a minimum.
Breyer noted the U.S. team said it wanted to gather as much data as European governments could share and threatened to reimpose visa requirements for EU nationals, currently covered by the visa waiver. The team said that if a traveler known to EU police arrived at the U.S. border, the outcome would be decided on a case-by-case basis by the border guard.
“I expect the EU Commission and also the German government to reject the demand of the US authorities and not allow themselves to be blackmailed. If necessary, the visa waiver programme must be terminated by Europe as well,” wrote the Pirate Party MEP.
“Millions of innocent Europeans are listed in police databases and could be exposed to completely disproportionate reactions in the USA. The US lacks adequate data and fundamental rights protection. Providing personal data to the US exposes our citizens i.e. to the risk of arbitrary detention and false suspicion, with possible dire consequences, in the course of the US ‘war on terror.’ We must protect our citizens from these practices.”
These issues were apparently not of sufficient concern to UK authorities, nor Israel’s. The Israeli government signed up in March, spotted The Register, although this is part of joining the visa waiver program, signaling that sharing biometrics could be a prerequisite.
The UK’s Home Office declined the opportunity to deny it is signing up to the treaty, reported The Register, which received a loose response on the UK’s ongoing commitment to its partnership with the U.S., including data sharing. Biometric Update has also contacted the Home Office and has yet to receive a response.
Police handling of biometrics in the UK, including fingerprints and DNA, is overseen by the Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner (or at least currently as this role is set to be abolished by the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill). In the UK, police can keep biometric samples for three years even if the subject was not charged. An extension can also be added in certain cases. The police are adding biometrics even when no crime has occurred, such as people passing its overt facial recognition operations. Their data is processed and also held for three years.
Biometric Update has contacted the office of the Biometrics Commissioner for comment on the news.
Support for traveler biometric sharing in the US
U.S. government officials cite the taking of four hostages at a synagogue in Texas in January 2021 by a British citizen as a reason for the biometric data sharing, reports the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. In late 2020 the MI5 investigated the man, shot dead by police at the scene, but had deemed him no longer a risk by the time he flew to the U.S., reported the BBC.
The Star-Telegram notes that the hostage situation force the DHS to “reexamine the program before the United States formally informed allies of the policy move”.
It is not clear what the requirements are for what would trigger the sharing of a person’s biometrics, such as in the hostage taker’s case. It is not clear whether there would be any threshold for a police record.
“The new EBSP program will require countries in the U.S. visa waiver program, and those that aspire to join, to begin sharing criminal histories and biometrics on ‘individuals of concern’ by the end of 2026, officials said,” reports the Star-Telegram.