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MEPs draft ring of flowers for fortress Europe

Caring, sharing police databases

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The European Parliament has fashioned a wreath of caveats it hopes will brighten up legislative measures designed to raise biometric borders and erect a network of biometric controls for police across the continent.

The elected chamber is celebrating at least one certain success today: the official ratification of a compromise it struck with the German Presidency and member states in the European Council over the Visa Information System, which promises to create the world's largest biometric database to monitor flows of immigrants into Europe.

MEPs also gave their approval for two sets of proposed amendments to legislation over which they have no authority, but on which the council has asked for their tuppenny's: the Prüm mechanism for European police forces to share DNA, fingerprints, and other data, and the proposal to give the police much broader authority to share data in police and judicial matters.

These two proposals are so closely related they have turned into a bit of a hash that has left countries such as the UK feeling a bit sore and confused.

The data protection bag has been gathering dust since 2005 because, according to British MPs, member states have been so excited about the potential for technology to improve policing that they've neglected fundamental human rights. Hence Prüm, the dubious democratic legitimacy of which has also ruffled a few feathers.

Taking their lead from the European Data Protection Supervisor, MEPs are pressing the council to make sure the Prüm initiative respects the "basic principles of law and fundamental rights". MEP Fausto Correia, rapporteur for the consultation, recommended the legislation should be trimmed to exclude the sharing of data about people's "racial and ethnic origin, political opinions, religious or philosophical beliefs, party or trade union membership, sexual orientation or health" - with the vague exception when it is "absolutely necessary".

It is also proposed that police delete data they've got from another country's force no later than two years beyond its useful shelf-life. But it does not - indeed cannot - do anything about the charges against the legitimacy of Prüm, nor suggestions its implications and uses haven't been thought out properly.

And, bizarrely, the same goes for the proposed data protection legislation, which is supposed to make police data plans respect fundamental human rights. As they stand, they don't.

MEP Martine Roure has issued a raft of proposals aimed at improving police data protections. These have previously fallen on deaf ears.

The extent of Roure's proposals shows just how feeble the measure is in its current form. She wants criminal sanctions for police who break data protection laws, oversight of data sharing by independent authorities, the right of redress for people who become the subjects of police databases, a record kept of the reliability of intelligence collected for police purposes, independent control of data sharing about people not deemed a security risk, regular verification of data, and a prohibition on the collection of data about people's "racial or ethnic origin, political opinions, religious or philosophical beliefs, trade union membership and health or sex life."

Phew. And that's just an excerpt. At least the VIS legislation, for which a compromise has already been agreed, is now a shoe-in. It awaits just the vote of the council in a fortnight's time before the European Commission can pull the modesty screens back on the system it has already been busy building in the anticipation that the legislation would indeed be a shoe-in. ®

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