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U.S. and Germany want to share fingerprint, DNA databases

Countries say proposed agreement will boost cross-border cooperation on investigations of known and suspected terrorists, but it's already raising privacy questions.

About six months ago, German police reported disrupting a terrorist plot against U.S. installations in their country, thanks in part to intelligence tips from American agents. Now officials in the two nations have hatched a formal plan to share more information about known and suspected terrorists.

U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, Attorney General Michael Mukasey, and their German counterparts--Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble and Justice Minister Brigitte Zypries--initialed an agreement on Tuesday to swap fingerprint and DNA data.

U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble (shown here at a September 2007 meeting) have signed a new agreement to share biometric data. U.S. Department of Homeland Security

At a Tuesday press conference at German government headquarters in Berlin, Mukasey hailed the proposed cooperation as a "great achievement" that would make both countries safer.

"Terrorists who threaten our way of life see no barriers in borders between countries--neither should our efforts to stop them," he said, according to a transcript.

Details on the plan are sketchy thus far--and reportedly subject to approval by both German and U.S. legislators.

By Mukasey's description, the new system will be configured so that each of the countries can access the other's fingerprinting databases on a "yes-no" basis. That is, if evidence is picked up at a scene by one country's agents, they can check that evidence against the partner country's database. If a match comes up, then "the agreement also sets forth procedures for obtaining it through lawful processes that also ensure appropriate protection for personal data," Mukasey said.

According to officials quoted by Agence-France Presse, the information would only be shared in investigations of terrorism and other "serious crimes," not "ongoing criminal cases."

German and U.S. officials also attempted to diffuse the inevitable privacy concerns raised by such a scheme. Zypries, the German Justice Minister, reportedly said any requests for information--and subsequent replies--would be "recorded," seemingly for auditing purposes if abuse or misuse is alleged. Furthermore, data that isn't ultimately used would have to be "destroyed," she said.

The U.S. officials said they hope the bilateral agreement will serve as a model that other nations will follow. Sharing such data among countries is not unheard-of in Europe: The controversial Prum treaty allows a number of European Union states--Germany, Spain, Austria, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg--to access each other's databases of DNA profiles, fingerprints, and motor vehicle registration data. Several other countries indicated they would also sign on.

But privacy concerns have accompanied that effort, and similar questions are already being raised about the scope of the new U.S.-German agreement.

Peter Schaar, Germany's privacy commissioner, was quoted by Reuters as expressing concerns that non-terrorism suspects--such as asylum seekers or protesters--could find their civil liberties violated.

"If I have participated in...a rally identity was checked and my fingerprints taken, then this may be important to German police," Schaar was quoted as telling Deutschlandfunk, a German radio station. "But does that give the right to the United States, when I travel there and maybe have the wrong stamp in my passport, to get access to these data? I would say no."