Some see compulsory fingerprinting as an invasion of civil rights and retinal scanning is thought by many to be the stuff of science fiction, but these measures and more may all be part of a new EU passport come 2005.
All in favor say "eye"
The future is a step closer now that the European Commission has adopted a proposal to compel EU member states to compile biometric information of their citizens and those wishing to enter their countries. In time, this data could appear in the form of fingerprints and electronic facial signatures on passports and visas, and provide further identification information via retinal eye scans at airports and borders.
The passport proposal, agreed by the Commission last week, has now been passed to the European Council and European Parliament where further discussions and decisions will be made on whether to make it compulsory for all member states to store fingerprint data and digital facial images of nationals and immigrants who apply for visas or residence permits.
Plan targets 2005 for new passport
If Brussels does decide in favor of the proposals, it's possible that the traditional European passports could be replaced by a new biometric version as early as 2005. Under the current plan, EU governments will be responsible for adopting the new standards. The EU itself does not have any powers to issue passports or other identity papers for individual member states.
Biometrics is a method of measuring biological dimensions: fingerprints, iris scans, hand measurement, gait recognition, typing rhythms, and many more facets of personal identification that can be encoded and stored on computer chips.
Photos and biometric chips for visas
Non-EU citizens will require biometric visas by 2005.
As well as EU passports, entry visas for non-EU citizens will also carry photographs by 2005 and will eventually have to be upgraded to include chips that will include biometric information. According to a European Commission statement, the measures were being proposed as part of the increasing need to guarantee a very high level of security. "Existing security standards are improved even further by the integration of two biometric identifiers," the statement said, "to combat not only document fraud, but also fraudulent use."
The EU is also planning to introduce biometric data on visas and residence permits of third country nationals residing in the EU starting next year, as a means to counter illegal immigration.
Preparations for the introduction of fingerprinting as a primary means of biometric identification began back in June during the European Council meeting in Thessaloniki. The attending members agreed to bolster border security and issue new EU passports with improved identity measures to counter the growing trade in fake identity papers by the end of 2004.
It is thought that the decision to add facial imaging to the proposal was influenced by a similar move by the U.S. government and continuing pressure from Washington to upgrade European security.
U.S. plans delayed for one year
X marks the spot.
However, the United States has relented on its strict demands on specific nations to bring their security into line with its own updated passport rules by extending its demand for biometric assimilation by one year. That means under the U.S. Patriot Act; visitors from the European Union, Japan, New Zealand and Australia traveling to the US from October 26, 2004 will need visas containing biometric information if they want to enter the country.
Some EU member states have already carried out their own tests in advance of the Commission decision and the amended U.S. schedule. The German Ministry of the Interior has confirmed that it has tested several models for identification. A spokesman told the Financial Times Deutschland, that the ministry found a system of Iris-scanning to be the best although other member states are still more favorable to fingerprints as the best way to identify citizens.
Schily speaks of support for measures
The German Interior Minister Otto Schily again voiced his support of the measures at the time of the European Commission adoption of the proposal: “When we have a problem identifying a person or where that person comes from, biometric recognition will make a clear identification possible.”
But the plans have consistently come under attack by human rights groups which have complained that the storage of such information could be subject to abuse and could be used to record people's movements. Experts in the field of biometrics have also questioned the efficiency of the technology currently available in the fight against international security breaches.
Problems with individual indentification
Markus Kuhn, a lecturer in computer security at the University of Cambridge computer lab, told BBC Online that biometrics were “better at verifying identities than humans were when asked to match unfamiliar faces with small photographs in passports and other identity documents.”
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But he added that their usefulness broke down when used to pick out wanted individuals, such as suspected terrorists, from the mass of people passing through a checkpoint.
Database size could be problematic
There are also concerns about whether the technology could be reliably used on a large scale. A report issued by the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) in November 2002 said that the largest iris scanning system currently in use had only 30,000 records.
By contrast any system used to verify the identities of people travelling to and from the United States, for example, would have to contain up to 240 million records. The GAO warned that it was "unknown" how a system with many millions of records would perform.
It also noted that any biometric system would do little to stem the numbers of illegal immigrants wherever the system was employed because most of them did not enter through recognised ports, and avoided all identity checks.