Eurodac: the European Union’s first multinational biometric system


Eurodac is the EU's asylum fingerprint database and contains the fingerprints of all asylum applicants from each Member State, as well as fingerprints from persons apprehended in an irregular border crossing. Its primary role is to assist in determining the Member State responsible for examining an asylum application made in the EU and to thereby implement the "Dublin Regulation".

What's so special about EURODAC?

Eurodac was the first biometrically enabled system commissioned by the European Union, and the first multinational biometric system in the world. Eurodac has been operating continuously since going live on January 15th 2003 and has undergone a number of expansions and upgrades.

This web dossier will focus on the Eurodac biometric system (European Dactyloscopy System):

  • its origins​
  • its evolution
  • some major facts and figures for 2016-2018.

Cogent Systems​, recently acquired by Gemalto, has been involved in this project since 2002 when it won a contract to supply the Eurodac Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS) - a role Gemalto Cogent still performs to this day. 

Let's dig in.

Eurodac background 

Just two years after the Dublin Convention of 1990, which stated that asylum applications should be made in the first country of entry into the European Union, Germany set up its own fingerprint database of people requesting asylum to different parts of Germany. So already at that time, 10 years before Eurodac, the concept of "asylum shopping" was identified as a problem that needed to be tackled.

It was recognized even then that a pan-European database for asylum seekers was technically possible, and it was whilst the European Commission's "Ad Hoc Group on Immigration" was considering whether and how to implement such a system on a cross-EU basis, something happened.

Pozzallo, Italy 2013  

Pozzallo, Italy 2013

Migrant crisis… from 1997 to 2017 and on

Throughout 1996 refugees fleeing the war in Iraq were arriving in Turkey and attempting to cross into Europe. Trafficking gangs assisted those seeking a better life in Northern Europe to exit on rubber boats and on overcrowded metal hulks – scenes that continue to this day.

Then on 2 Nov 1997 a boat called the "Hassan Beirut" carrying 769 people, mainly Kurds, ran aground and became stranded off the coast of Italy, many of whom continued their journey through Italy towards Germany.

Crisis talks involving affected Members' States sought to find a political solution. And so it was that against this background the plans for Eurodac took on a second objective – not just to record a request for asylum at the first point of entry, but also to register those attempting to enter illegally.

Legislation followed with Regulations on Dec 11th 2000 and Feb 28th 2002. And in order to implement the EU refugee policy, Eurodac, leveraging biometric technology, was designed and commissioned.

What is Eurodac?

The Eurodac system enables the comparison of fingerprints of asylum applicants and persons apprehended in connection to an irregular or illegal border crossing.  28 EU Member States and 4 Associated Dublin States (Iceland, Norway, Liechtenstein and Switzerland) use the system.

The new Eurodac Regulation No 603/2013 took effect in July 2015 and national police forces as well as Europol can now access the system and its fingerprint database for prevention, detection and investigation of the most serious forms of crime, including terrorism.

Why a biometric system?

The goal of Eurodac in the asylum process is to facilitate the application of the Dublin III Regulation

It provides a mechanism for determining which country is responsible for examining applications for international protection lodged in one of the member states.

To understand why biometrics is key in identification please visit our June 2017 report on Biometrics for identification and authentication.

Asylum seekers 

Budapest, Hungary – 10 September 2015: Refugees standing up and waiting to take a train to Vienna under the supervision of Hungarian police. Many refugees are crossing Hungary from Syria going to other countries of Europe as Germany, Austria, Sweden or Denmark. They are looking for a better future for their families.

What information does Eurodac store?

The common European asylum system stores the minimum amount of information necessary to enforce Dublin III, including:

  • ten rolled fingerprints
  • the state sending the data,
  • the place and date of the international protection application (if applicable),
  • the person's gender and a reference number.  

​In response to the migrant crisis, proposals are being considered by the European Parliament to increase the information stored in Eurodac about individuals, for example in order to assist in reuniting family members. For the moment, the system does NOT store biographic​ data.

Immigrants in Europe 

​Architecture and capacity

Eurodac underwent major redesigns, first in 2009 and then again in 2015, with "Eurodac Recast", when new workflows were introduced that had to be in place legally at central and national level by July 20th 2015.

The new architecture was put in place successfully on time, and with it a new more accurate matching algorithm was employed.

This graph from EUROSTAT data shows the numbers of people requesting asylum from the early days of the system to the present day. The numbers of asylum applications grew six fold between 2005 and 2015, from around 200K to over 1.2 Million per year.

In Q3 2017 the number of first time asylum applicants in the EU-28 decreased by 55 % in the third compared with Q3 2016. Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans were the top 3 citizenships of asylum seekers for this period.​

The quarterly number of first applicants reached 164 300 at the level recorded in 2014, before the 2015 peak.

Fingerprint database  

Whereas around one third of the applications were repeat applications in the early years, during the worst part of the crisis almost all have been first time applications.

Of course the capacity of the system had to be scaled accordingly. ​Whilst the fingerprint database was originally designed to contain 1.6 million records in 2003, this was increased in 2009 to 2.8 million records, increased twice more in 2015, first to 3.6 million and then to 5 million, and recently increased to 7 million records, all the while ensuring a high degree of accuracy by ensuring that each and every fingerprint record is checked in a one to many search.

Likewise, throughput has increased from 500 messages per hour with a 30 minute response time in 2003 to 1,500 messages per hour with a 60 second response time in 2015, making today's system many times larger than in the past.

The Eurodac annual report for 2016 reported that in that year, the system processed:

  • 1,018,074 fingerprints of applicants for international protection (category 1)
  • 370,418 fingerprints of persons from irregular border entries –category 2)
  • 252,559 fingerprints of persons, suspected of being illegal immigrants who failed to gain asylum on the territory of a Member State. (category 3)

Source April 2017 Eurodac – 2016 statistics

Number of hits (where the fingerprints obtained from a registration site and from the fingerprint database are matching)

  • 361,610 for category 1
  • 476,338 for category 2
  • 172,040 for category 3

Despite this traffic, the system provided 99.99% availability in 2014 and 99.996% of requests – that is all but 3,000 – were answered within one hour. 16% of enquiries resulted in a hit. In 10% of cases, the biographic data was found to be inadequate and in 4.5% of cases the quality of the fingerprint acquired was too poor.

Common European asylum system: a complex workflow

Perhaps where Eurodac differs most from many other AFIS​ systems is in its unique workflow requirements which are designed to ensure that only Member States can change or read their own records, while ensuring that individual freedoms and rights are protected in the event of an individual being granted asylum or citizenship of a Member State.

Achievements and evolution

In conclusion, Eurodac is the largest multi-jurisdictional AFIS in the world serving 32 countries. It utilizes the latest biometric matching technology to support a unique set of business rules, achieving that with very high reliability.​

  • It has proved to be a very important tool providing fingerprint comparison evidence to help determine the Member State responsible for examining an asylum application done in the EU.
  • It also sets time limits for fingerprint data to be transmitted, reducing the time which elapses between the taking and sending of fingerprints to the Central Unit of Eurodac.
  • It allows Member States' law enforcement authorities and Europol to compare fingerprints linked to criminal investigations with those contained in Eurodac.

Looking forward, we see yet more change down the line, including new search types and perhaps face recognition capabilities.

Technical challenges and Gemalto Cogent experience

As with Eurodac, Gemalto's biometric solutions need to work in real life environments on European borders and around the world – at night, in the dark and in the rain and wind at a sea port, sometimes at -20°C or conversely in bright sunlight.

Our expert teams can support you to meet these real life challenges.

How can Gemalto Cogent AFIS solutions better help you?

Gemalto Cogent Automated Biometric Identification System​ (CABIS), is used for investigation, identification and verification in civil and border identification and law enforcement applications.

Cogent AFISes are already deployed to over 200 applications in more than 80 countries worldwide.

Gemalto solutions can also secure your AFIS system with strong authentication and encryption solutions (HSM and tokenisation) as the company does with India's Aadhaar​ the largest biometric data base in the world.

If you've something to say on this topic, a question to ask, or have simply found this article useful, please leave a comment in the box below. We'd also welcome any suggestions on how it could be improved, or proposals for future articles.

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