EU withdraws proposal for biometric chips in visas

The technological problems associated with introducing biometric chips into visas have proved insurmountable, forcing the Commission to drop the proposal altogether. 

Biometrics

The problem with chips in visas, which would normally be inserted into passports, is that these clash with any biometric chip contained in the passport itself, preventing both from working. Since no technological solution has been found, the proposal has been dropped. A modified proposal, published by the Commission on 10 March 2006, concerning residence permits, whereby the insertion of chips will be optional, makes public the decision to drop the chip requirement for visas. The proposal states that, “for the time being no additional solution will be adopted for integrating biometric identifiers on the visa sticker itself or on a separate smart card. The biometric identifiers will be only stored in the Visa Information System.”

Both the EU and the US are to introduce biometric identifiers into passports. Marc Meznar conceded that the US was using the ‘leverage’ of its visa waiver programme to push for a “common agenda on biometrics” i.e. all EU citizens must have biometric chips in their passports by October 2006 to be allowed free entry to the US. There is no such deadline for the US, but it has rolled out its biometric passport and is aiming to also meet the deadline. 

In fact, the EU scheme goes further than that of the US, since the EU regulation stipulates two sets of biometric data – fingerprints and facial scans, while the new US biometric passport will only include facial scans. Regarding biometric border systems, Meznar said that the US is currently only collecting two fingerprints but may move to ten as the rate of ‘false positive’ results is far greater when only two fingerprints are used.

European Border Management 

Kristian Bartholin of DG justice, freedom and security, explained that the European Border Management strategy, based on the Schengen acquis, was intended to allow free movement within the EU, while securing external borders where more problems could occur. The strategy will be managed by the European border management agency (known as FRONTEX) established in June 2005 (see EURACTIV 30 June 2005).

He said that the EU was looking at the possibility of having an entry/exit system similar to the US. By this, people are logged in as they enter the EU and logged out on crossing the border out of the union. There is therefore a record of who is inside the territory at any one time. A ‘trusted traveller’ fast-track system was also being considered. 

Passenger name records (PNR)

In May 2004 the EU and US signed an agreement to exchange passenger data. The question of whether the EU was competent to enter into an agreement to give PNR to the US was referred to the European Court of Justice by the Parliament in June 2004. An opinion by the Advocate General of the court found that the EU had no such competence. 

Neither speaker would speculate on the outcome of the full hearing but Bartholin said that if the judgment went against the validity of the agreement, another way would have to be found for such data to be exchanged.

EU/US Cooperation

Both speakers agreed that such cooperation was essential and was growing in strength and substance. The main areas of cooperation between the EU and the US have been on:

  • Technology: particularly biometrics.
  • Interpol: the database of lost and stolen passports has been expanded by the inclusion of US data.
  • Information exchange: there are still however, legal and policy barriers in this area.

On the issue of biometric chips in visas, Tony Bunyan, editor of UK civil liberties organisation Statewatch has said, "Only storing biometrics (fingerprints) on the central VIS system, would seem to present an obvious problem (just about as obvious as the "collision problem" was back in 2003). If the biometric data is not in the visa the only way to carry out a check will be to take the fingerprints of people entering the EU with a visa on entry, either at an airport, seaport or land border. This would be very time-consuming, costly and in some cases lead to long queues while peoples' details are checked and cleared."

Both Meznar and Bartholin agreed that the sharing of information was vital. Meznar pointed out that the US was keen to pass data on to the EU but that the union was not able to accept all the information proffered. Bartholin acknowledged this, but stressed that the historical misuse of personal data by repressive regimes in Europe had led to a heightened sensitivity over the issue. The safeguarding of personal data was therefore one of the basic values of the European Union which was protected by rigorous legislation at European level.

At a conference organised by the Centre for European Policy Studies on 21 and 22 of March, Marc Meznar of the US Mission to the EU and Kristian Bartholin from the Commission discussed this issue in the context of a discussion on EU-US cooperation and border management. 

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