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European Parliament approves continent-wide biometric database

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The European Parliament has approved plans to link national databases to effectively create a database containing the biometric data of hundreds of millions of Europeans.

The “Common Identity Repository” (CIR) will streamline the ability for national authorities to access data from across the bloc. Officials will be able to search a single integrated database rather than multiple databases, with individuals’ names, genders, facial photographs, birth dates, countries of birth, fingerprints and passport numbers exchanged between national systems.

It is estimated that the CIR will contain records from more than 350 million people. This could allow officials in airports across Europe’s Schengen Area to search for an individual’s data using a single fingerprint scan.

The European Parliament very strongly backed two proposals: first, to merge systems storing information relating to border crossing and visas, and secondly, to merge systems storing information relating to law enforcement, courts, asylum claims, and migration.

The policy must now be signed off by the President of the European Parliament and President of the European Council. The European Commission hopes to have the linked system in place by 2023.

“Interoperability will help those working in the frontline to keep EU citizens safe – ensuring police and border guards have efficient access to the information they need, including to fight identity fraud, [enabling] them to do their jobs properly,” said Julian King, Commissioner for the Security Union and UK representative on the European Commission

According to the European Commission – the executive branch of the EU – the CIR will not collect additional data to what is already available in existing information systems and it would not modify the rights of people to access their personal data.

The policy has sparked concern among both civil liberties groups and data protection regulators.

Last year, the European civil liberties campaign group Statewatch compared the idea of the vast biometric database to Big Brother: the all-seeing authoritarian entity of George Orwell’s dystopian 1984. An analysis written by Statewatch director Tony Bunyan explained that the idea initially involved creating “interconnectivity” between EU databases, but morphed quickly into a “centralised EU state database”. Bunyan argued that the database would be likely to grow in the future with the planned introduction of national biometric ID cards across Europe.

Meanwhile, EU data protection authorities have warned that the policy could violate Europe’s privacy regulations, which are among the toughest in the world.

Under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), data may only be collected from Europeans for “specific, explicit and legitimate purposes” and processed in line with these purposes. Giovanni Buttarelli, the European Data Protection Supervisor, warned that this linking of national databases could lead to a “panopticon in which all our behaviour is considered useful for investigative purposes and must be made accessible because fighting crime is given priority.”

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