Statewatch News online: Introduction of biometric features worries privacy rights advocates (FAZ)

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Germany to shape EU passport rules
Introduction of biometric features worries privacy rights advocates, but Schily has no reservations

By Kristina Merkner and Elise Kissling
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (F.A.Z.), June 27, 2003

Interior Minister Otto Schily's controversial draft legislation on passports and identification cards with biometric indicators may form the basis for an agreement currently being hammered out at the European Union level.

“Germany is likely to play a major role in shaping such an agreement, since it was a pioneer in both legislation in the field and the necessary technology,“ Interior Ministry spokes-man Daniel Höltgen told F.A.Z. Weekly, referring to plans to introduce passports and identification cards with biometric indicators such as iris recognition or fingerprints by next year.

“Our legislation has already paved the way for iris recognition, fingerprints and face recognition in passports,“ he said, referring to security legislation implemented shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Succumbing to pressure from the U.S. government, the EU heads of government and state last weekend announced plans to require all member states to equip passports with biometric data starting next year, according to the final declaration of last weekend's EU summit in Porto Carras. The United States had threatened to introduce mandatory visas for all EU citizens if the EU does not include such identifiers in its passports.

The EU initiative comes just weeks after the G8 nations, the governments of UK, Germany, France, Japan, Britain, the United States, Italy, Canada, and Russia, agreed to develop a biometric passport system, complete with barcode, eye scan, and fingerprints.

The German Interior Ministry began working on its own legislation shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington. “Germany won't pass a law before there has been an international agreement on which feature to use, that is between Germany, the EU and the United States,“ Höltgen said. “It basically depends on the United States and on which [biometric] feature they require,“ he said.

The legislation initially met with stiff resistance from the Greens, the government's junior coalition partner, as well as from privacy advocates. The Greens soon dropped their opposition in exchange for looser immigration restrictions, but this legislation has since been blocked by the Bundesrat parliamentary chamber of state representatives.

Many Greens continue to argue that passports with mandatory biometric features would violate the country's data protection law. To begin with, there is no security against theft. Face scans and fingerprints, both of which are included in Schily's draft legislation, can be collected and stored in central databases and then used for other purposes, for example to track people's activities and do police work.

“Upstanding citizens will be surprised at how easily they can become the subject of a criminal investigation, just because they've left their fingerprints inside a bank that happened to be robbed two hours later. They would then have to prove their innocence and the whole German principle that the burden of proof lies with the prosecution could be turned upside down,“ the president of the German Data Protection Association (DVD), Thilo Weichert, told F.A.Z. Weekly.

Not all data protection advocates oppose biometrics altogether, but all say that certain features are more problematic than others. “Iris recognition, for example, entails fewer data protection problems, since the individual has to actively participate in the recognition. Fingerprints and facial features, however, can be left behind unintentionally without the individual's consent, “ Weichert said. “They could then be used for criminal investigation.“

This is why the DVD also strongly opposes the storage of biometric data in central databases. Instead, it proposes storing the data on individual chips in the passports. But this is technically more sophisticated and more expensive.

Concerns about the choice of biometric identifiers are incomprehensible to the Interior Ministry: “Regardless of what feature is incorporated, it will simply make our passports better,“ said spokesman Höltgen, “The interior minister is not worried about data protection at all. It's just a matter of believing in the German legal system.“ Höltgen also insisted that the government has no plans to install a central data base for biometric data.

Weichert is less optimistic. “Once the technology is there,“ he said, “it won't take long for protection clauses to vanish from the regulations. All you need are a few cases of child abuse and the criminal investigation department will see to it that the data is used for other purposes than those originally intended.“Data protection rights are not only part of the German constitution but also of the EU's Charta of Fundamental Rights.

Weichert expects the upcoming EU passport legislation to unleash a debate about privacy rights, especially if the EU draft calls for central data storage or features that can be used without a person's consent.

If that happens, there might be complaints that the new EU legislation violates the EU charter. And constitutional complaints against the German law that would implement the EU's decision have to be expected, said Weichert.

Höltgen, however, does not believe that they would be upheld by the courts.

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