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The European Parliament voted last night to build the world's largest biometric database, but only after ensuring that the police would not have free access to it.

The Visa Information System (VIS), which the European Commission has already started building, is expected to record the fingerprints and mugshots of 20 million visa applicants to the EU every year and house the records of 70 million applicants at any one time.

MEPs, who were given co-decision with the European Council on part of the VIS legislation, had been in an 18 month stand-off with the council over the proposals. European member states in the council had wanted to give police unlimited access to the VIS, even though it is not a police, but a civil database.

The Parliament, led by rapporteur Baroness Sarah Ludford, Liberal Democrat MEP, had wanted police access to the VIS to be limited and made accountable to civil authorities.

Strictly speaking, the parliamentarians had no say over the decision on whether and how police got access to the VIS - they did not have co-decision on that half of the legislation because the European Union has no say in police and judicial matters.

But it did have co-decision over the civil half of the legislation, which would simply allow the VIS to operate, and it employed the awkward squad here until the council capitulated on police access. The stand-off finally broke when Dr Wolfgang Schäuble, German minister of the interior, cracked heads on behalf of the German Presidency of the European Union.

The consequence is that this legislation, in its first reading, proposes that each member state nominate an authority responsible for controlling police access to the VIS. Police would have to supply evidence that their query of the immigrant database was necessary for a specific criminal investigation.

The authority would have to approve the access and perform the query on behalf of the police. Queries would be audited by national data protection authorities.

The only exception to the rules would be in emergencies - when there was an imminent threat - in which case police could place a more direct query on the VIS and have it vetted afterwards.

Baroness Ludford said in a statement that the database could have significant consequences for the rights of millions of people: "I have thus fought hard to ensure that the fundamental data protection principles of necessity and proportionality are respected and that access by internal security authorities is not routine but governed by strong safeguards." ®

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