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


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 d

 

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