Statewatch News Online: EU: Report on biometrics dodges the real issues

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EU: Report on biometrics dodges the real issues
- report: "puts economics and profit above liberties and privacy"

A report from the EU's Joint Research Centre on the use of biometrics takes what can only be termed a technologically determinist view, namely that:

"It is our view that the implementation of biometric technologies by governments is both inevitable and necessary, and that the criticisms, issues and challenges raised must be addressed as part of the implementation process."

Thus the widespread use of biometrics is seen as inevitable and that there is a strong economic argument for the EU to get into this field quickly:

"fully consistent with the Lisbon goals, ensuring that Europe reaps the benefits of governmental initiatives in this important area... [and] Europe can benefit from the large-scale deployment of biometric technologies."


"The large-scale introduction of biometric passports in Europe provides Member States with a unique opportunity to ensure that these have a positive impact, and that they enable the creation a vibrant European industry sector. Two conditions would appear to be necessary for this to happen. Firstly, the creation of a demand market based on wide user acceptance, by clearly setting out the purpose and providing appropriate safeguards for privacy and data protection. Secondly, the fostering of a competitive supply market for biometrics. This is unlikely to emerge by itself and will need kick-starting by governments – in their role as launch customers, not as regulators." (p11)

EU governments are doing just that with the planned introduction of biometric passports, visas and residence permits (requiring the compulsory finger-printing of all). The 166-page report's central argument is that through what it calls the "diffusion effect":

"It is expected that once the public becomes accustomed to using biometrics at the borders, their use in commercial applications will follow." (p10)

There is a fleeting reference to the European Parliament's rejection of biometric passports in April 2004 and its acceptance on 2 December 2004 - there is no mention of the fact that the parliament was "blackmailed" into this decision. See: EU governments blackmail the European Parliament into a quick adoption of biometric passports

There is no recognition in the main report that the use of biometrics is being driven by security demands for wholesale sureillance as part of the "war on terrorism". The report does contain two "brief summaries", five and three-and-a-half pages respectively, from two highly critical external contributors who express grave reservations:

"The provisions of national data protection acts become meaningless when data crosses national borders. Furthermore, the ability of the individual to challenge incorrect assumptions with respect to their own data is highly questionable – assuming that they even have knowledge of such a situation." (Julian Ashbourn)


"It may be true that, in the short term, citizens simply go with the flow and accept what many of them will see as the sacrifice of personal freedoms in order to support policies which, they have been lead to believe, will create a more secure world. However, in the medium and longer terms, the reality of the situation (such as it may be) may become self evident and, depending upon popular perception, this may lead to an erosion of trust which will not be in the interest of government. This is a very serious issue which should be taken fully into consideration with respect to current aspirations. We should be in no doubt that we are tampering with the very fabric of society and should treat this fabric with the care and respect it deserves." (Julian Ashbourn)


"The deployment of biometrics by public and private actors raises numerous concerns that are not or not adequately addressed by the current human rights framework and the data protection framework; for instance concerns of power accumulation, concerns about further use of existing data, concerns on specific threats proper to biometrics, concerns related to the use of the technology in the private sector, concerns about the failure to protect individuals from their inclination to trade their own privacy and concerns for costs. These concerns are genuine. Policymakers and civil society demand decisions that are well informed and based on careful consideration of reality. However, there are no empirical data about the current performance of the existing systems as there are no precise data about why new systems and facilities are needed." (Paul de Hert)

Apart from mininising civil liberties, data protection and privacy concerns what is striking about the report are the countless references to the fact that:

"the technology is still under development... there is a lack of widely accepted standards" (p11)

"empirical data on the real-time large-scale implementation... is limited" (p11)

"There are currently few biometric applications that have millions of enrolled individuals and thousands of deployed devices" (p12)

In fact there are no examples of applications on the scale that the EU is intending to deploy them. The Visa Information System (VIS) is estimated to hold records on 70 million people in 10 years, all of the EU's 13 million-plus resident third-country nationals, and the "grand-daddy" of them all the EU biometric passport database 200 million plus - as ID cards are used in many Schengen countries for internal EU travel the numbers out of the current 450 million people in the EU could well be higher. In fact, the European Commission was unable to get figures of how many passports (let alone ID cards) have currently been issued in the 25 states.

The report utterly fails to confront the question that the larger the database the greater chance there is of errors, every study shows that errors increased exponentially with size.

This is going to be particularly the case for EU passports, the specifications for which have just been set out as only:

"Plain impressions of the left and right index finger"

In other words the biometric will be based on just two finger-prints - it does not take a genius to understand that when trying to match two fingerprints from a database of hundreds of millions the error rate will grow as the database grows.

Tony Bunyan, Statewatch editor, comments:

"This is a poor report which puts economics and profit above liberties and privacy."

1. Biometrics at the Frontiers: Assessing the Impact on Society (Joint Research Centre) (large pdf)
2. EU-Passport Specification, Working document (pdf)
3. EU governments blackmail the European Parliament into a quick adoption of biometric passports

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