Since the 9/11 attacks, the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the European Union and its Member States have been working to better secure international travel, which is vital to all their economies. Sharing information, both before departure and upon arrival, has become a higher priority for governments.
But what to share, how to share it, and with whom or what — and doing so in line with existing privacy and data-protection laws and standards — has hardly been easy to pin down. Indeed, such international and bilateral agreements can take years before the parties find common ground.
Over the past year, long-standing discussions and negotiations have resulted in several new information-sharing initiatives that seek to boost security while facilitating travel for legitimate travelers.
In January, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) began requiring certain visitors to the United States to share information about themselves and receive travel authorization before they can start their journey. The requirement applies to citizens of the 35 Visa Waiver Program (VWP) countries; VWP permits tourists and business visitors to stay in the United States for up to 90 days without a visa.
Under the Electronic System of Travel Authorization (ESTA), VWP travelers submit via a secure online connection the same information that they would have provided on an I-94W form upon arrival in the United States. The ESTA requirement is one of several new features of VWP introduced under the Secure Travel and Counterterrorism Partnership Act of 2007.
The United Kingdom, Australia, and Canada agreed in August to share with each other fingerprint information on foreign criminals and asylum seekers. The United States is expected to sign the agreement, and New Zealand is considering legislation to join in the near future. All are members of the Five Country Conference, a forum for cooperation on measures to improve immigration controls and border security.
During the first year of the agreement, each country can share up to 3,000 sets of fingerprints, a number that will rise over time. Protection measures include ensuring that fingerprints remain anonymous unless a match is detected and destroying fingerprints once a match has been completed, meaning no fingerprint database can be compiled.
Before the agreement was signed, a trial run allowed the United Kingdom to identify an asylum-seeking Somali who had been fingerprinted when he arrived in the United States on an Australian passport. The Somali was indeed an Australian citizen and wanted for rape in Australia. He was deported and is now serving jail time.
In October, DHS finalized an agreement with the European Union that allows for exchanging information on criminals. The Mutual Legal Assistance treaty makes it possible for the United States and the European Union to identify the bank accounts of those involved in terrorism and other serious crimes and to use data acquired under the agreement for additional serious offenses.
In November 2009, after three years of discussion, the EU-U.S. High-Level Contact Group on information sharing and privacy and personal data protection agreed on a set of common principles for sharing information for law enforcement purposes. Next year, the United States and the European Union will try to turn these common principles into a binding international agreement.