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EU aims to stop 'visa shopping'

Schengen states to share visa data

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The European Parliament has approved draft proposals for a biometric database to prevent people who are refused a visa by one Schengen country from applying to other member states.

The proposals, approved on 7 June 2007, are aimed at preventing the practice, known as "visa shopping", through the establishment of the Visa Information System (VIS) aimed at improving the implementation of a "common visa policy" in Europe.

The system is also aimed at fighting fraud and facilitating checks at external borders, helping to identify those not meeting conditions for entry, stay, or residence in Schengen Member States and preventing terrorist threats and other serious crimes.

The VIS will be the world's largest biometric database with 70 million sets of fingerprints. Managed by a permanent EU funded authority, the system will allow supervised access by police and the European police agency Europol.

Personal data from visa applications stored in the VIS will include biometric photographs and fingerprints, as well as written information, such as the name, address and occupation of the applicant, and date and place of the application. It will also include any decision taken by the member state responsible to issue, refuse, annul, revoke or extend the visa.

According to the new rules, biometrics will be used under controlled circumstances, by first using the visa sticker number for verification, along with fingerprints, with fall-back procedures also in place. Strong data protection safeguards were a key goal for the Liberal Democrat justice spokesperson, Baroness Sarah Ludford MEP, who drafted two reports on the system.

"I am confident we have built the legal framework for a visa system, which will increase EU border security but also facilitate travel and ensure respect for individual rights," she said.

"We cannot afford to take risks with big biometric schemes like this, as the potential consequences for misuse or abuse would deeply undermine civil liberties. The European Parliament must be closely involved, in liaison with national MPs, in any further proposals to interlink border or immigration databases, create new ones, or allow police access."

Only authorised staff of the relevant national visa, border control, immigration, asylum and internal security authorities will be granted access to the system. Other data protection provisions include the training of specialised staff to deal with data, and mandatory scrutiny by national data protection authorities.

There are currently 15 Schengen member states: Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Greece, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Norway and Iceland. Although not a Schengen member, the UK government wishes to opt in to the VIS ruling, subject to agreement by the member states and Council of Ministers.

The proposals still need to be approved by the Council of Ministers and European Parliament before they become law.

This article was originally published at Kablenet.

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