Exclusive The US is to corral "like-minded" nations behind a global immigration database after proving with a trial link to British computers that such an ambitious, global plan is technically feasible.
Allies of the US have joined it in talks to formulate an international policy framework that would allow the sharing of immigration databases, effectively creating a global border control.
Their aim is to stop criminals and other undesirable migrants at a vast, biometric border that is likely to include, at the very least, the EU countries, Australia, and Canada.
Troy Potter, biometrics programme manager for the US Department of Homeland Security's biometric border control programme, told The Register only those countries "of like mind" would be allowed to join the scheme: "People with similar goals, aspirations, laws and ability to implement such a scheme.
"It's about keeping out folks from countries, to have more of a global border per se," he said. "Shouldn't like-minded countries be told when someone's been kept out of the US? That's a necessary next step [because] immigration has become a worldwide issue."
Frank Paul, head of large scale IT systems at the European Commission, hinted to an audience at the Biometrics 2006 conference last week about EU support for such a scheme.
"We trust everyone enrolled in the US and they trust everyone in the EU system. Then I don't see why the systems shouldn't be linked in the future," he said.
Terrorists would be the prime target of the system. Terrorism had been the reason the US government gave for setting up US-VISIT, the immigration database for which Potter is biometric manager. The US database had yet to snare a terrorist, and the Department of Homeland Security has since been advertising it as a means of keeping foreign murderers out of the country.
An international agreement for sharing immigration data would also target criminals and "habitual immigration violators", Potter said.
"If there's a murderer in another country we would rather not have that murderer in the US, especially if they are on the run," he said.
But he stressed the system would not finger normal people, or "Joe Public". People's privacy would have to be respected, he said.
"We would violate the privacy laws of individual countries if we shared data as we wanted to," said Potter, but added: "The last thing we want is for someone who has changed their ways and then we keep harassing them."
It could take years for the US and its allies to form an agreement that deals with all the emerging privacy and legal concerns about sharing immigration data. Other developments at the Department for Homeland Security could complicate matters further. It is developing a permanent link between immigration and criminal databases, while US law enforcers also want links to civil databases so they can get a full biographical history of people who catch their interest.
"There are fine lines and that's where these agreements are not going to be easy. But this is not routine data sharing on everyone. This is not big brother," said Potter.
Similar concerns have slowed the progress of the European Visa Immigration System (VIS). A continent-wide version of the US plan, legislation to allow the VIS is stuck between the European Parliament and member states in the Council of Ministers.
The concern is that European efforts to share information for immigration are being subsumed into a broader security effort that has no legal obligation to Europe's proud data protection authorities. This has created tension between member states and the European Parliament over other controversial data sharing arrangements - the US trawling of passenger name records and secret snooping on banking data handled by SWIFT being two recent examples. In neither case is the EU's authority to impose data protection laws that would protect citizens from being caught up in the zealous hunt for terrorists being conducted by the security agencies.
The European VIS is being built by European Commission civil servants anyway, and will be completed in 2007. There will simply not be any legal basis for the system to be switched on.
The US faces the same problem, said Potter: "The policy and legal framework is not in place to do routine data sharing between countries. but that's something we were discussing."
The UK's Home Office and US Department of Homeland Security have already trialled a link between their immigration databases, which Potter said was successful.
"It was a technical trial. It showed we could share data between countries if agreements were there so we could do it," he said. "Our biometrics were compatible...when the legal and policy framework catches up, we can do it." ®