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Europe weighs fingerprinting, may join U.S. to form database

The Washington Post

The European Commission will propose Wednesday that all foreign travelers into and out of Europe, including U.S. citizens, should be fingerprinted. If approved by the European Parliament, the measure would mean that precisely identifying information on tens of millions of citizens will be added in coming years to databases that could be shared by friendly governments around the globe.

The United States already requires that foreigners be fingerprinted and photographed before they can enter the country. So does Japan. Now top European security officials want to follow suit, with travelers being fingerprinted and some also having their facial image stored in a Europe-wide database, according to a copy of the proposal obtained by The Washington Post.

The plan is part of a vast and growing trend - especially across the Atlantic - to collect and share data electronically for the purposes of tracking and identifying people in the name of national security and immigration control. U.S. government computers now have access to data on financial transactions; air travel details such as name, itinerary and credit card numbers; and the names of those sending and receiving express-mail packages - even a description of the contents.

"It's the only way to be really sure about identifying people," said a European Commission official familiar with the new fingerprinting plan. "With biometric data, it's much easier to track people and know who has come in and who has gone out, including possible terrorists," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The timing and logistics of the plan remain uncertain, but it would probably not start for at least another year. The fingerprints would probably be taken upon arrival and then checked against a database, the official said. That, initially at least, would mean airports where fingerprints would be scanned electronically, the European official said.

"It seems like a steamroller," said Sophie in 't Veld, a Dutch member of parliament who closely follows privacy and security issues. "There is a new trend in particular in the U.S., the E.U. and Australia to register every single detail of our life. We're tagged. They can follow everything we do. They know where we are. The whole question is, what for? Does this actually make the world a safer place?"

The Bush administration says it does.

"Not only do we support these measures, we applaud them," said Russ Knocke, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security. "Measures like fingerprint and passenger-data collection can disrupt the ability of terrorists to move easily across international borders. They also serve to protect American citizens traveling overseas."

Copyright 2008 The Washington Post

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