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EU: Biometric documents take another step forward

The EU Justice and Home Affairs Council in Luxembourg on 8 June 2004 gave what is called "political guidance" on the question of "biometrics in EU citizens' passports". It was "broadly agreed that the EU citizens' passports should contain a first mandatory biometric identifier, a facial identifier, and an optional one, in principle fingerprints." This "guidance" is likely to be reviewed later as there is a major disagreement over whether the second identifier - fingerprints - should be optional. A number of powerful member states are arguing that - taking the long-term view - the "facial identifier" and fingerprints should both be compulsory (ie: along the lines of the proposed UK ID card). They argue that unless fingerprints are also mandatory there will be no common standard and "interoperability" (a euphemism for standardisation and access by all states agencies to all EU databases).

The mandatory "facial identifier" is also still a fudge - because the technology cannot be in placed throughout the EU by the end of 2005, nor the end of 2006, the initial "facial identifier" will simply be a digitised copy of the normal passport photo which can only be used for the purpose of verifying that the photo on a database is the same as the one in a document (passport, ID card etc). The wholesale introduction of "facial scans" will require everyone to go to an "enrolment centre" to have a face scan - and which will record up to 1,840 different distinguishing features of a person's face - will come later. This is because not only does the equipment have to be installed in numerous national "enrolment centres" but national databases have to be set up to handle the data and biometrics and so too does the planned EU-wide Registry of documents (this is years away) and equipment installed at every EU border check point (air, land and sea).

This confusion arises because the EU is obliged to sign-up to the US/UK-led G8 initiative which lead to facial scans being adopted as the mandatory international standard by the ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organisation - a UN body). However, compared to using fingerprints - a technology that is developed and universal - facial scanning technology is still being developed by the industry. When left to its own device the EU decided that fingerprints are to be the mandatory standard for its VIS (Visa Information System) which will require all non-EU residents to register and have their prints taken before a visa to visit is issued.

see: background coverage:

1. The road to "1984" Part 2: EU: Everyone will have to have their fingerprints taken to get a passport
2. Summit nods through "EU Homeland Security" package
3. Commission’s EU biometric passport proposal exceeds the EC’s powers

G8 meeting at Sea Island in Georgia, USA - sets new security objectives for travel

The G8 meeting in Sea Island, Georgia on 10 June 2004 adopted an Action Plan, "G8 Secure and Facilitated International Travel Initiative (SAFTI)". This follows up decisions taken in 2002 and 2003 (Evian).

The G8 countries, as usual, seek to set global standards for all. The ICAO standards - based on a G8 US/UK-led initiative (through the Roma and Lyons groups of G8). It is to be implemented "by all governments" by the:

"development of international standards for the interoperability of government-issued smart chip passports and other government-issued identity documents."

This process is to be effected through an "International Information Exchange" that will include:

"mechanisms, where possible, for real-time data exchange with respect to validation of travel documents, visa watchlist information and advanced passenger information, while fully respecting applicable personal data protection rules... [and] effective and timely information exchange on the terrorist watchlist or lookout data of participating countries on a reciprocal basis, using procedures that satisfy security concerns and are consistent with the privacy and other laws of those countries."

By December 2004 Interpol is to provide a real-time database on lost and stolen international documents and there is to be collaboration on "a next-generation passenger control concept" working towards a "globally interoperable" (that concept again) system.

4. G8 Action Plan adopted, 10 June 2004: G8 Plan (pdf)
5. G8: Decisions from the Justice and Home Affairs Mministers meeting in Paris on 5 May 2002: Report
6. Civil society letter to ICAO: Letter

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