EU mulls smart biometric borders

27/10/11

The European Commission has adopted a Communication which sets out the main options for using new technologies, such as biometrics, to simplify life for foreigners frequently travelling to the EU and to better monitor third-country nationals crossing the borders.

Enabling smooth and fast border crossing for travellers, while ensuring an adequate level of security, is a challenge for many Member States. Every year more than 700 million EU citizens and third country nationals cross the EU's external borders. This number is expected to rise significantly in the future. By 2030 the number of people at European airports could increase by 80%, which will result in longer delays and queues for travellers if border checking procedures are not modernised in time.

"The Union must continue to modernise the management of its external borders and ensure that the Schengen area is better equipped to cope with future challenges", said Cecilia Malmström, Commissioner for Home Affairs. "The 'Smart Borders' initiative would speed up border crossing for regular travellers but could also help us to better secure our external borders. We now need to make sure that the most efficient systems are in place and I am looking forward to discussing the available options with the European Parliament, the Council and the European Data Protection Supervisor".

The 'Smart Borders' initiative would consist of:
 

  • An Entry/Exit System (EES) which would record the time and place of entry and the length of authorised short stays in an electronic database, replacing the current system of stamping passports. This data would then be made available to border control and immigration authorities.
  • A Registered Travellers Programme (RTP) which would allow certain groups of frequent travellers (i.e. business travellers, family members etc.) from third countries to enter the EU, subject to appropriate pre-screening, using simplified border checks at automated gates. This would speed up border crossings for 4 to 5 million travellers per year and encourage investments in modern automated border controls (e.g. on the basis of e-passports) at major crossing points.

One of the key questions is whether or not the EES should use biometrics and which type. The Communication suggests that the system could either only record alphanumeric data (e.g. name, nationality and passport number) or also include biometric identifiers.

The inclusion of biometrics would make it easier for a system to identify undocumented persons not requiring a visa (as visa holders can be identified using the VIS). It would also provide a more precise matching of entry and exit records (e.g. in the case of persons travelling with two passports) by linking the travel history to a specific individual on the basis of a unique property shown by the biometric identifier.

On the other hand, a certain negative impact on border crossing times could occur because of requiring biometrics from all travellers not subject to the visa requirement. The best way forward would therefore be to start in a first phase with alphanumeric data only, the Communication recommends. The biometric identifiers could be activated at a later stage, based on first evaluation results both in terms of the overall impact of the system and on border management.

The development costs for such a transitional approach would be generally comparable to activating  biometrics from the start and only marginally more expensive than excluding biometrics from the start, a choice which cannot be reversed at a later stage.

As to the choice of biometric identifier, in line with the identifier used for EURODAC, the VIS, the SIS II, passports and residence permits, the most commonly used and reliable identifiers are fingerprints and (also in case a fingerprint is not available) a digital image of the face. This choice would also mean that full use could be made of already installed equipment, bringing about significant cost savings.

Eleven Member States are currently implementing national entry/exit systems, which systematically collect all entry and exit records of third-country nationals crossing their respective external borders. However these national systems are not linked to similar systems in other Member States.

Seven Member States have implemented a form of a national RTP for EU citizens. But again these systems cannot be used for third-country nationals and membership of a national RTP in one Member State will not automatically allow the traveller to benefit from facilitated border crossing in another Member State.

The implementation of these systems needs to be discussed in light of their added value, technological implications, data protection implications and costs. The Commission will discuss all these elements with the European Parliament, the Council and the European Data Protection Supervisor. It will then present legislative proposals during the course of next year.

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Europe wants smart border system
Europe wants smart border system

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