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Civil rights groups warn of grave dangers in international biometric passport system


1. The open letter (pdf) - Statewatch is one of the signatories
2. Background information package (htm)

Files & Biometric Identifiers on More Than a Billion Passengers to be Computerised and Shared Globally by 2015

Civil rights groups warn of grave dangers in international biometric passport system

29th March 2004, Embargo: 22.00 hrs GMT, 29th March 2004

A wide range of privacy, human rights & civil liberties organisations throughout the world have signed an open letter expressing grave concerns over a global biometric identity system being established on behalf of governments by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).

The letter, spearheaded by Privacy International and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) raises concerns about little-known plans to imminently create international standards that will require the use of biometrics and RFID (radio frequency) technology in all future passports. The measures, being decided this week at a meeting of the ICAO in Cairo, will result in a distributed international identification database on all passport holders.

The open letter has been signed by, among others, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Statewatch, the UK based Foundation for Information Policy Research, the Association for Progressive Communications and the US based Privacy Rights Clearinghouse.

The ICAO has agreed that the initial international biometric standard for passports will be facial mapping. Adequate memory space in newly issued passports will be reserved for additional biometrics such as fingerprinting at the discretion of every government. The EU is already calling for fingerprints to be included, along with an associated European register of all biometrics. National authorities will store and share these vast data reserves.

The measures, supported by the US and the EU, will ultimately create an electronic ID system on hundreds of millions of travellers. Despite serious implications for privacy and personal security, the process is occurring without public engagement or debate. Rather than allowing this important issue to be decided by parliaments, governments have delegated the setting of standards to the ICAO, a UN-level organization that is responsible for the standardization of travel documents, passenger data systems and air travel requirements.

The legislative drivers for the ICAO system are already in pace. The USA-PATRIOT Act, passed by the U.S. Congress after the events of September 2001 included the requirement that the President certify a biometric technology standard for use in identifying aliens seeking admission into the U.S., within two years. The schedule for its implementation was accelerated by another piece of legislation, the little known Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act 2002.

Part of this second law included seeking international co-operation with this standard. The incentive to international co-operation was made clear:

"By October 26, 2004, in order for a country to remain eligible for participation in the visa waiver program its government must certify that it has a program to issue to its nationals machine-readable passports that are tamper-resistant and which incorporate biometric and authentication identifiers that satisfy the standards of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO)."

These laws gave momentum to the standards that were being considered at the ICAO by requiring visa waiver countries (which include many EU countries, Australia, Brunei, Iceland, Japan, Monaco, New Zealand, Norway, Singapore, and Slovenia) to implement biometrics into their Machine-Readable Travel Documents (MRTDs), i.e. passports.

Based on projections from current passport and travel statistics, biometric details of more than a billion people will be electronically stored by 2015. Some of the countries sampled for this estimate are:

United States       90 million
United Kingdom  54 million
Japan                  64 million
Canada               24 million
Australia             13 million
Russian Federation 50 million
reland                  4 million
Taiwan              17 million
China                60 million

The Privacy International open letter warns:

"We are increasingly concerned that the biometric travel document initiative is part and parcel of a larger surveillance infrastructure monitoring the movement of individuals globally that includes Passenger-Name Record transfers, API systems and the creation of an intergovernmental network of interoperable electronic data systems to facilitate access to each country's law enforcement and intelligence information."

Privacy International has warned of "unprecedented" security threats that could arise from the plan because of potential access by terrorists and organised crime. Furthermore, the biometric standard being adopted is "fundamentally flawed" and will result in a substantial number of passengers being falsely identified as potential terrorists or wrongly accused of holding fraudulent passports.

Dr Gus Hosein, Senior Fellow with Privacy International, warned: "This is a potentially perilous plan. The ICAO must go back to the drawing board or hold itself responsible for creating the first truly global biometric database".

"Governments may claim that they are under an international obligation to create national databases of fingerprints and face scans but we will soon see nations with appalling human rights records generating massive databases, and then requiring our own fingerprints and face-scans as we travel."

He continued: "In January 2004 when the U.S. began fingerprinting and face-scanning foreign visitors and storing this data for over fifty years under the US-VISIT program, many countries responded with alarm. With the biometric passport, however, every country may have its own surveillance system, accumulating fingerprints and face-scans and keeping them for as long as they wish with no regard to privacy or civil liberties."

Notes to editors

1. The open letter (pdf)
2. Background information package (htm)

Contact Information

Simon Davies, Director, Privacy International, +44 (0)7958 466 552 email
Gus Hosein, Senior Fellow, Privacy International, +44 (0)20 7955 6403 email

Passport statistics and projections have been derived from the following sources:

United States:
United Kingdom:
Russian Federation:

- Privacy International (PI) is a human rights group formed in 1990 as a watchdog on surveillance by governments and corporations. PI is based in London, and has an office in Washington, D.C. Together with members in 40 countries, PI has conducted campaigns throughout the world on issues ranging from wiretapping and national security activities, to ID cards, video surveillance, data matching, police information systems, and medical privacy, and works with a wide range of parliamentary and inter-governmental organisations such as the European Parliament, the House of Lords and UNESCO.

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