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US plan to link biometric databases for travelers in limbo

US plan to link biometric databases for travelers in limbo

The United States’ plan to access European fingerprint databases in order to vet travelers arriving at its territory has stalled because of a lack of clarity, according to a new report from non-profit organization Statewatch.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security created the International Biometric Information Sharing Program (IBIS) and the Enhanced Border Security Partnership (EBSP) as part of a scheme to push all 40 countries whose citizens can currently enter the U.S without a visa to shre more records with border authorities.

In 2022, the UK became one of the countries signing up to share records from its police biometrics database with the U.S. Negotiations with other countries, however, have been slow, with confusion arising amongst some European Union countries as to what exactly the U.S. is proposing and whether negotiations should be conducted by member states or the EU itself, according to a Statewatch report published this week.

One of these states is Belgium. In a recent note from the Belgian Council Presidency of the EU to a working group, the country discussed the U.S. confirming that countries not taking part in the Enhanced Border Security Partnership (EBSP) may not be included in the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) from 2027 onwards, reimposing visa requirements for some EU nationals.

“It also became clear that the Member States are at different stages regarding the EBSP: several Member States have started bilateral negotiations, some are already well advanced in their negotiations while others have yet to engage in bilateral talks,” the note states.

Belgium also says it is not clear which databases the U.S. wants access to, in what way and for which purposes the information will be used.

The U.S. has in some cases offered to pay for the biometric infrastructure in foreign states and store collected data in its own databases. But the model is unlikely to be accepted in many European states, which already have their own biometric collection and storage systems, according to the Statewatch report.

The civil liberties organization also warns that Belgium’s note to European institutions makes no mention of transparency towards the public. According to last year’s analysis from the group, the U.S. could gain direct access to the personal data of “hundreds of millions of people.”

As part of the partnership, nations are required to directly connect their biometric databases with the U.S.’ IDENT/HART biometric databases which host 270 million identities. While joining such a large database could enhance security, some EU circles have resisted what they see as U.S. strong-arming, citing privacy concerns.

In May 2023, the EU said it aims to take a “pragmatic approach” that will attempt to unlink the issue of information exchange from visa policy.

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