US reported to be pressuring Bern to allow automatic fingerprint and DNA sharing
BERN, SWITZERLAND – The Swiss government, like others that have not signed an agreement with the United States called a “Preventing and Combating Serious Crime” (PCSC) agreement, may be under pressure to do so by June 2012 or risk the introduction of visas for Swiss citizens wanting to visit the US, according to Swiss-German newspaper Tages Anzeiger Wednesay 7 December.
The story was picked up by other Swiss media, including the Tribune de Geneve, which confirmed it independently.
Alexander Daniels, spokesperson at the US embassy in Bern, told GenevaLunch Wednesday afternoon that “June 2012 is a target date ” rather than a deadline. “These are ongoing negotiations and as such we don’t comments on the substance” of the talks, he notes.
US and Switzerland have been negotiating data sharing since 2007
The negotiations date back to 2007, with the PCSC agreements growing out of the US 9/11 Act. They are designed, says Daniels, “to share information on travelers who might pose a threat” for either country.
By May 2011 the US had signed 17 such agreements with European countries, Daniel Benjamin, coordinator for the Coordinator’s Office on Counterterrorism told the US Senate Foreign Affairs Committee 5 May.
Benjamin told the committee that the PCSC agreements are “designed to increase law enforcement cooperation between the USG and its foreign partners, and also authorize the spontaneous sharing of information for the purpose of detecting and preventing terrorist and criminal activity.”
Embassy spokesperson Daniels in Bern emphasizes that the US, in the negotiations, is seeking “to be in compliance with Swiss laws” and to ensure that Switzerland can be “compliant” with both its own privacy laws and the PCSC requirements.
The unknown impact of “corrective action” on visas is triggering alarms
Alarm bells appear to have been set off by word getting out to Swiss media that, as Daniels puts it, “we may implement corrective action” next summer, for the Esta programme. He emphasizes this is “may” rather than will implement, but details of what this could mean are not available.
Tages Anzeiger suggests this means automatic sharing of fingerprints and DNA in at least some cases, which could contravene Swiss data privacy laws. Agreements signed with other countries appear to confirm that this is part of their agreements.
Switzerland is one of the countries that participates in the US visa waiver programne known as Esta. Swiss citizens who apply to Esta for a visa waiver and obtain it are generally cleared to enter the US without a visa. Switzerland’s 2010 adoption of a biometric passport was widely viewed as helping the country make it into the Esta fold.
Esta was mandated by the 9/11 Act in the US, created to combat terrorism.
ESTA and the agreement under negotiation, linked from the start
It is, in fact, linked to the PCSC, a fact that was not widely understood, in Switzerland and possibly elsewhere in Europe, when the Esta visa waiver programme was set up.
Marc Frey, former director of the Visa Waiver Program, wrote for Security Debrief in July 2010 that:
“A PCSC agreement provides for the reciprocal exchange of biometric and biographic data and any relevant underlying information for law enforcement purposes. It works like this: The parties provide each other automated access to their fingerprint (and potentially DNA databases) on a hit/no hit basis. Each party can query the other’s database and, if a match is found, can request identity and other information about the individual through established, informal police-to-police channels. The parties may also “spontaneously” share terrorism or criminal information with each other, even without a query being made. This spontaneous or voluntary sharing may occur on a case-by-case basis or in bulk and may be used for criminal investigations, for preventing a serious threat to public security, and for other related uses. The PCSC contains extensive provisions designed to ensure that the data is protected from any unlawful release and that data will be swiftly corrected or deleted at the request of the party that originated and owns the data.”
Security Debrief is published by the Homeland Security Policy Institute at the George Washington University.
Switzerland is not alone in balking at signing such an agreement; Germany, Spain, Italy, Norway are listed by the Tribune as holding out. The US has not signed an agreement with Great Britain.
It signed agreements with The Netherlands in November 2010 and Belgium at the start of 2011. In both cases, fingerprints and DNA are part of the deal.
Esta’s own description of how information obtained for visa waivers may be shared, and how long it is held, is not likely to reassure European skeptics who are worried that US demands will erode their own privacy laws, nor does it provide comfort to Americans abroad worried about growing demands by the IRS and the extent to which various US agencies share information.
“The information collected by and maintained in ESTA may be used by other components of DHS [Department of Homeland Security] on a need-to-know basis consistent with the component’s mission.
“Under current agreements between DHS and the Department of State (DOS), information submitted during an ESTA application may be shared with consular officers of DOS to assist them in determining whether a visa should be issued to an applicant after a travel authorization application has been denied.
“Information may be shared with appropriate federal, state, local, tribal, and foreign governmental agencies or multilateral governmental organizations responsible for investigating or prosecuting the violations of, or for enforcing or implementing, a statute, rule, regulation, order or license, or where DHS believes information would assist enforcement of civil or criminal laws. Additionally, information may be shared when DHS reasonably believes such use is to assist in anti-terrorism efforts or intelligence gathering related to national or international security or transnational crime. All sharing will remain consistent with the Privacy Act System of Records Notice, which was published in the Federal Register on June 10, 2008 and is available on the DHS Web site.”