Proposals for a centralized database of fingerprints across the Continent were revealed on Thursday, fuelling fears on all sides of a Big Brother Europe. The scheme for a computerized collection of personal details drawn from all 27 countries in the EU is the latest in a raft of anti-crime measures in the wake of the 9/11 attacks in the United States.
The aim is for the database to be up and running by the end of next year. The sensitive information it contains could be shared with third parties, such as US law enforcement authorities. A detailed assessment is being carried out to determine the scope and cost of the single EU fingerprint database, The Times has learnt. The proposal, which was buried in a lengthy European Commission document setting out policy goals for next year, managed the rare feat of uniting all sides in opposition. Eurosceptics criticized them as the trappings of a super-state, while some of Europes most ardent supporters complained of a threat to civil liberties.
This rings alarm bells in terms of civil liberties and in Brussels over-reaching itself, said Baroness Ludford, a Liberal Democrat MEP, who called the project Euro Big Brother run riot. She added: Of course MEPs want to fight crime and terrorism, but individual privacy must be safeguarded. We need to know who can access this database and what the information can be used for. It is irresponsible of the European Commission to act like this. It is doing the eurosceptics job for them.
Officials in Brussels confirmed that an assessment was under way on implementing a centralized database of fingerprints. The one-line announcement of the plan as a key action for security and freedom appeared in the European Commisions annual policy strategy for 2008. There is no decision yet on where the database would be housed. Such EU projects are traditionally the subject of haggling among member governments. The officials were reluctant to say if the fingerprints, from all 27 countries, would be made available to allies such as the United States in the fight against crime and terrorism, in the same way as airline passenger information. A spokesman for Franco Frattini, the EU Commissioner for Justice, Freedom and Security, said: This is something we are doing more work on, as a very important, if not indispensable, tool in combating cross-border organized crime and terrorism. So we will certainly pursue this.
He confirmed that it was an additional project to the voluntary sharing of fingerprint information agreed by home affairs ministers in January under the extension of the Prum Treaty - an agreement between several continental countries. Neil OBrien, of Open Europe, said: The European Union is gaining criminal justice powers very rapidly. The problem is that one thing leads to another and that setting up centralized institutions is then used as an excuse for further harmonization of powers which will take decisions about criminals and victims further away from ordinary voters.
If you are collecting a centralized database, there will then be rules about how you collect fingerprints, which have implications for how you handle different kinds of crimes. Who decides who controls access to this information? A lot of people will feel this is the start of Big Brother Europe. Gareth Crossman, director of policy at human rights group Liberty, said: The attitude of the British Government is one where mass retention of biometric information is at the heart of anti-crime and security policy.