by Zach Campbell and Chris Jones, The Intercept
A police investigator in Spain is trying to solve a crime, but she only has an image of a suspect’s face, caught by a nearby security camera. European police have long had access to fingerprint and DNA databases throughout the 27 countries of the European Union and, in certain cases, the United States. But soon, that investigator may be able to also search a network of police face databases spanning the whole of Europe and the US.
According to leaked internal European Union documents, the EU could soon be creating a network of national police facial recognition databases. A report drawn up by the national police forces of 10 EU member states, led by Austria, calls for the introduction of EU legislation to introduce and interconnect such databases in every member state. The report, which The Intercept obtained from a European official who is concerned about the network’s development, was circulated among EU and national officials in November 2019. If previous data-sharing arrangements are a guide, the new facial recognition network will likely be connected to similar databases in the US, creating what privacy researchers are calling a massive transatlantic consolidation of biometric data.
The report was produced as part of discussions on expanding the Prüm system, an EU-wide initiative connecting DNA, fingerprint, and vehicle registration databases for mutual searching. A similar system exists between the US and any country that is part of the Visa Waiver Program, which includes the majority of EU countries; bilateral agreements allow US and European agencies to access one another’s fingerprint and DNA databases.
Although new legislation following the report’s recommendation is not yet on the table, preparatory work is ongoing. Information provided by the European Commission to the European Parliament last November shows that almost 700,000 euros (about $750,000) are going to a study by consultancy firm Deloitte on possible changes to the Prüm system, with one part of the work looking at facial recognition technology. The European Commission has also, separately, paid 500,000 euros to a consortium of public agencies led by the Estonian Forensic Science Institute to “map the current situation of facial recognition in criminal investigations in all EU Member States,” with the aim of moving “towards the possible exchange of facial data,” according to a project presentation sent to national representatives in Brussels.
© 2020 The Intercept