United States, Germany will share biometric data

The United States and Germany will share some biometric information in their respective fingerprint databases, officials from both countries announced today.

Speaking at a joint ministerial conference in Germany, officials from the countries said the agreement is a benefit to counterterrorism efforts, and it has symbolic significance.

“The agreement further provides a mechanism for sharing information about known and suspected terrorists, so we can prevent them from entering our countries and attacking our people,” U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey said in a statement. “But beyond the important practical value of this agreement, it symbolizes the joint resolve of Germany and the United States to fight terrorism and transnational crime.”

Under the agreement, the U.S. and Germany can query each other's fingerprint databases to see if either has information about a suspected terrorist or a criminal’s fringerprint. If the querying country gets a hit, it will then make an official request for identifying data. If there is no hit, the country retains no data, according to a press release about the pact.

That process is similar to the one established by the Prum Treaty under which European Union nations have agreed to share biometric data with one another for criminal investigations.

Mukasey said he hoped the agreement would lead to similar pacts with other EU countries. Officials from those countries have raised privacy concerns about security measures that the U.S. has taken since the 2001 terrorist attacks, but U.S. officials say that the biometric agreement was carefully written to include privacy assurances.

Paul Rosenzweig, the Homeland Security Department's deputy assistant secretary for policy, said the U.S. used an existing treaty as a model with the hope that all members of the EU would find it acceptable and sign on.

James Lewis, director of the technology and public policy program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the U.S. not only must convince member states, but also the EU's institutions.

“One of the problems has been that for the Europeans is who’s on first…does the U.S. negotiate with the member states or the EU?” Lewis asked.

Because the pact isn't a formal treaty, Congress does not have to approve it. However, it is subject to the approval of German lawmakers. U.S. officials will be traveling to other European destinations this week to discuss the agreement.

U.S. officials have been working on getting other nations to sign on to similar agreements, which DHS says would satisfy congressional requirements for enhanced information sharing with countries with visa-waiver agreements with the U.S.

“It is not necessary for those agreements to be exactly like the one we just signed with Germany, but an agreement of the form that we signed with Germany today would go a long way towards satisfying the visa-waiver requirements,” Rosenzweig said.

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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