EU: Commission to resurrect biometric ID cards?

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Key Points:
- Belgium and Czech Republic insist that biometrics are not automatically added to national ID cards
- European Commission admits "there are doubts about the legal bases"
- Attempt to treat introduction of biometrics as a "technical" issue

At the end of January the Commission published its 128-page work programme for 2006: European Commission work programme for 2006: Justice and home affairs issues. Hidden in the detail is the following:

"Adoption par la Commission d'une décision établissant des normes pour les éléments de sécurité à intégrer dans les cartes d'identité (Comité Article 6)"

That is to adopt a Commission Decision to establish standards for security in ID cards. The "Brief description" attached is more explicit:

"Brief Description: According to The Hague Action Plan, travel documents both for third country nationals and EU citizens should be better secured in particular via the integration of biometric identifiers. Also Identity Cards have been explicitly mentioned even if there are doubts about the legal bases for such an action. This proposal responds to this request and will harmonise the security features for ID cards issued by Member States" (emphasis added)

There is, of course, a big difference between simply "harmonising" security features in national ID cards and "the integration of biometric identifiers" (see, below for objections to this approach).

Two other aspects are extraordinary about this proposal. First, the open admission that there are doubts about: "the legal bases for such action". Not surprising as Article 18.3 TEC (Nice) expressly excludes provisions on national ID cards.

Second, because the Commission does not appear to be intending to draft a proposal for consideration by the Council and European Parliament but rather to take this momentous decision in secret committee - the Article 6 Committee, referred to as a "Technical Committee".

The Commission's intention is all the more surprising as exactly this issue was the subject of heated discussion in the Council prior to the Justice and Home Affairs Council on 1 December 2005.

The story starts back in July when the UK Presidency presented a Note on "Minimum common standards for national identity cards" to SCIFA (Strategic Committee on Immigration, Frontiers and Asylum) (EU doc no: 11092/05). The Note called on SCIFA to ask the Article 6 Committee to draft standards including the "use of biometrics". This "Article 6 Committee" is a technical committee set up by the Commission to work out the implementation of the uniform visa format in 1995 - but what powers are there to extend the Committee's remit first to residence permits for third country nationals, then to EU passports and now to EU ID cards? As the original purpose of the Committee was to deal with the uniform visa format, on the the European Parliament was only "consulted", it appears the parliament has no right to see what is happening on all the other issues too. See: EU: Biometrics - from visas to passports to ID cards

The proposal surfaced again in November 2005 when the UK Presidency sent another Note to SCIFA on 11 November (EU doc no: 14351/05). The Article 6 Committee had "considered" physical security features and produced "interim conclusions" and in parallel "an ad-hoc group of experts from Member States" produced its "conclusions". SCIFA was "invited" to agree "Conclusions" with a view to their adoption "in the margins" (as an A Point - adopted without discussion) at the Justice and Home Affairs Council (JHA Council) on 1 December 2005.

The opening Recitals in the Conclusions plainly show the lack of a legal basis. No legally binding standards or timetables could be "imposed" on member states - "Conclusions" are anyway "soft", non-binding law which have to be agreed unanimously. This is followed by "without prejudging the issue of the possible legal basis" to "harmonise" security standards for national identity cards - in plain language this means that there is no legal basis but if common standards including biometrics are adopted by member states one-by-one (independently as it were) then "harmonisation" can follow later (a common tactic for controversial measures).

The Conclusions contained two elements, first, standards related to the "issuing process" (eg: applicants should appear in person, security of data and storage). Second, the introduction of biometrics identifiers ("face and two fingerprints") incorporated into a radio frequency chip (RFID) which should follow the specifications for passports "without modification" - this proved to be controversial. Also by the back-door the Conclusions set standards for checking applicants data "against existing databases" for example, "civil registers, passport and identity cards databases or driving licence registers".

A week later (18 November) a Note (EU doc no: 14622/05) from the UK Presidency to COREPER (the permanent committee based in Brussels of high-level officials from the 25 governments) said SCIFA "had reached agreement on most of the issues" and it was invited to:

"examine the only outstanding issue, which concerns a reservation by Belgium"

The final version, dated 25 November 2005 (EU doc no: 15000/05), had highly significant changes concerning biometrics. Member states could choose whether they wanted to have biometrics on national ID cards and the passport biometric standards were now only a "reference point" or "starting point". All references to fingerprints and RFID chips were deleted. To back these changes up the Belgium and Czech governments made the following statement:

"Belgium and the Czech Republic consider that the introduction of biometric data into national identity cards cannot be examined only from the technical angle. The question requires a wide-ranging debate, which includes the protection of the private life [privacy], budgetary and organisational aspects"

It is interesting to note that while the Conclusions were published in the official press release of the JHA Council on 1 December the statement by Belgium and the Czech Republic was not JHA press release, 1 December 2005.

Tony Bunyan, Statewatch editor, comments:

"This is no way to try to bring in such a far-reaching policy, one which will affect millions of people. It is particularly objectionable that the Commission appears to be proposing that the introduction of biometrics on national ID cards should be considered as a "technical" issue by a committee whose actions cannot be scrutinised. By-passing national and European parliamentary scrutiny, let alone civil society, has no place in a democracy"


EU biometric ID Card: European Association for Human Rights (AEDH) statement: Biometry and electronic ID card : Big Brother is watching you (pdf) Biométrie et carte d’identité électronique : Big Brother is watching you (French, pdf) Biométrie et carte d’identité électronique : Big Brother is watching you (Spanish, pdf)

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