Beginning in 2000, all European Union countries were obligated to participate in an automated fingerprint identification scheme known as “EURODAC” to trace and identify asylum seekers and those who have crossed borders illegally. The term EURODAC derives from the phrase “European dactyloscopy,” which basically means fingerprinting. The system requires all European Union member states to take the fingerprints of certain classes of people at border crossings. Those fingerprints must be sent, along with certain identifying information, to a centralized European database. That database is maintained by the European Data Protection Supervisor, which sets rules for length of storage and data security.
One of the primary goals of the EURODAC system is the streamlining of immigration data between countries, and the promotion of quick and efficient immigration-related searches. The European Union is a large body with many member countries. Making the data collected in one of those countries readily available to government agents in another can be challenging. At least for immigration, that challenge may be reduced by the EURODAC system.
EURODAC requires each member state to fingerprint any person over the age of 14 who is seeking asylum within its country’s borders. Fingerprints must also be captured for people over 14 found to have crossed the border illegally, or who are found to be living illegally within the country. The fingerprints must be digitally sent to the EU’s “central unit,” housed within the office of the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS). Along with digital scans of fingerprints, records also include the EU country where the fingerprint was taken, the sex of the person, the place and date of the asylum application or illegal immigration charge, the dates of collection and transmission, and a reference number.
All member states of the European Union must comply with the fingerprinting transmission and storage mandates. Other European countries can elect to voluntarily participate, however. This creates a centralized database that can be serviceable across the European continent.
The EDPS maintains all records in the central unit for up to ten years, and makes the records searchable to any EU immigration agent. When a fingerprint enters the central unit that matches a fingerprint already there, an alert is instantly sent to immigration officials. The idea is to quickly identify people who have previously applied for asylum in other EU countries, or who have previously been discovered illegally crossing other EU borders. In this way, fingerprinting has become one of the EU’s foremost forensic techniques for streamlining immigration. Records are destroyed two years after a person obtains EU citizenship or obtains a residency permit; otherwise, they are destroyed after 10 years.
The EURODAC system has been the subject of some controversy, particularly among privacy advocates. Privacy advocates argue that the storage and flagging of immigrant fingerprints violates the personal privacy of those immigrants, and can lead to unfair and unnecessarily harsh treatment at border crossings. For its part, the EDPS has promised utmost care in the collection and protection of all information. The EDPS has also set up a system whereby individuals can apply to see information held about them. The EDPS is accountable to the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union.