UK and US immigration databases have been linked in an intelligence sharing experiment that could lead to permanent trans-Atlantic data stores of wanted and suspected people.
Data is already shared in an ad-hoc fashion between London's Metropolitan Police and the US Federal Bureau of Investigations, but direct links between databases have not been possible because different forces use different standards to store and process data.
Troy Potter, biometrics program manager for US-VISIT, the US biometric immigration programme, joined the British Home Office on secondment six months ago and has just launched a test link between both governments' immigration databases.
The pilot was a general purpose exercise to lay a clear path for information sharing between US and UK government agencies, he told The Register. It could lead "potentially" to similar links between UK and US police databases.
"I'm trying to help the UK...ensure future compatibility with the US so we have similar standards that ease information sharing in the future," he told an international conference of biometric experts last week.
"[It's a] pilot programme of information sharing to see, [from] data collected in the UK and US, what else we can find out. It's been quite amazing that by using just a few prints we'll open up lots more information," he said.
A Home Office spokeswoman said it had been "in discussion with a number of countries", including the US, about information sharing. She refused to comment on the FBI pilot.
Robert Mocny, acting director of the US-VISIT programme at the Department of Homeland Security, called for more information to be shared globally between government agencies.
Privacy laws should be followed "very strictly", he said, but added: "We cannot allow to impediment our progress the privacy rights of known criminals."
Joseph Sensibaugh, programme manager for the FBI biometric interoperability office, said US data sharing would in the future finger "suspected terrorists".
Also targeted would be those "remaining recidivist with alert populations", said his presentation slide.
"It helps the Department of Homeland Security determine who's a good guy and who's a bad guy," he said.
Other plans included links to civil government databases, and a shared network of US and UK visa collection points that is currently out to tender in the UK.
"Our first foray was borders, we're now moving to the interior," Mocny said.
He said the "power of biometrics" had been demonstrated by the shared database after it had been used to make 1,300 arrests. He did not say how many had subsequently led to convictions. It had also identified 20,000 people with a past criminal history. He did not say what use there was in a system that determined that people had served and spent past convictions.
But Sensibaugh described in detail each of the nine murders committed by the infamous Railroad Killer, the Mexican immigrant Rafael Resendez-Ramirez. Had the shared biometric database been in place it might have caught Resendez-Ramirez on one of his trips across the southern border and four murders could have been prevented, he said.
Potter said the trans-Atlantic pilot would apply lessons learned about information sharing between the IDENT biometric immigration database of the US-VISIT programme and the FBI's IAFIS fingerprint database.
The US has been working on creating database links between the two agencies since 1995. At present, the systems are updated daily, but the intention is to create realtime links. ®