New Fingerprint Passports Raise Privacy Concerns | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 01.11.2007
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New Fingerprint Passports Raise Privacy Concerns

In response to growing terrorism concerns, Germany will require fingerprints on all new passports issued as of Thursday, Nov. 1. The move has alarmed data-privacy activists.

fingerprinting machine with fingerprint backdrop

Electronic fingerprinting is aimed at boosting security and detering forgery

In a move to boost national security and make key identity documents harder to forge, Germany will require fingerprints on all passports issued as of Nov. 1, 2007.

The electronic fingerprints, as well as the biometric digital photograph already required, will be stored on an invisible, electronically scannable data chip on the inside flap of the document.

The new technology aims to make the passport more secure. By using biometric data, border guards can see whether passport and carrier actually belong together.

Testing was positive, authorities say

"Security has taken a quantum leap," Matthias Merx of the Government Printing Office in Berlin told the AP news service. The printing office is issuing the new passports.

German passport containing biometric data

German passports are already hard to forge, some argue

Authorities say test runs with the new passports, whereby the passport-holder's two index fingers are electronically scanned, have gone smoothly so far. They aren't expecting a great outcry from opponents on the issue, Martin Schallbruch, IT director in the German Interior Ministry, told reporters.

"The fingerprinting (in the test phase) went off without a hitch," Schallbruch said. "The citizens were very relaxed about it."

Germany is the first EU country to add the fingerprints to its passport -- part of a plan put forth by the previous German government in response to growing terrorism concerns. The plan was eventually passed as an EU guideline.

Opponents label move "security risk"

But data protection activists have raised the alarm, saying the change is an infringement on personal liberties and a poor security measure to boot.

The Chaos Computer Club, a nonprofit group aimed at bringing attention to problem spots in modern electronic security, has labeled the new passport a "security risk."

The group worries the data could be read secretly, using long-distance scanners. It recommends carrying an electronic-chip passport in a protective envelope.

But passport expert Schallbruch said long-distance data reading is highly unlikely, considering the complex security mechanisms built in. Data can only be read with certain equipment, and then only from a distance of 10 centimeters.

Uncertainty about data files

Opponents of the new documents also were alarmed that the fingerprints are to be kept on file at local identification registry offices until the passports are issued and mailed out -- a process that can take up to six weeks.

Girl getting a biometric face scan

The future is now? Scanning devices can raise privacy issues

Meanwhile, even Schallbruch acknowledged it is "technically possible" for the police to access those files during the waiting period.

But the fact that the prints are not centrally registered means access to them is difficult, and most likely illegal, he said in a conversation with Berlin's taz newspaper.

Still, there are still exceptions. For instance, in a criminal case, the court can seize the registry office fingerprint records of a suspect.

"Fingerprints are easy to counterfeit"

Furthermore, data-protection activists also question whether passport offices will actually erase the personal data on file in a timely manner.

Other activists call into question the logic behind the plan overall. According to authorities, the fingerprints are supposed to make it harder for criminals to forge passports. But Thilo Weichert, who is in charge of data-protection for the northern German state of Schleswig-Holstein, said the chances of passport forgery in Germany were quite small in the first place.


Unlike this one, the passport prints are electronic and ink-free

The idea that electronic fingerprints make counterfeiting passports more difficult is "nonsense," he said, and added: "There is hardly a passport that is already as difficult to copy as our German one."

Frank Rosengart, a spokesman for Chaos Computer Club, agreed.

"Fingerprints are some of the easiest things to counterfeit," he said. His group has produced a video showing how easy it is to create false prints with "a little glue and a digital camera."

Weichert added that anyone using their passport as identification outside of Germany, say at a hotel desk, runs the risk of having their identity stolen.

"It is a big danger in the USA and Great Britain. In other countries, identity theft is very, very advanced. In my opinion, the new passport raises the possibility that this will increase in Germany as well."

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