Building the biometric state: Police powers and discrimination


This report examines the development and deployment of biometric identification technologies by police and border forces in Europe, and warns that the increasing use of the technology is likely to exacerbate existing problems with racist policing and ethnic profiling.

Support our work: become a Friend of Statewatch from as little as £1/€1 per month.

Aussi disponible en français (pdf)

También disponible en español (pdf)

Download the full report here and read a summary here.

Download the data used in the section on EU research funding here.


The use by states of biometric technology for identifying individuals has proceeded apace over the last three decades. Initially reserved for use in fixed locations such as police stations, consulates (for example, for visa processing) or detention centres, it was subsequently extended to borders, with fingerprints and facial images now captured and verified at border crossing points in multiple countries around the globe. Some states have also sought to equip police officers and immigration officials with mobile biometric identification devices that make it possible to scan fingerprints or faces in the street to verify an individual’s identity. Under the aegis of the EU’s ‘interoperability’ initiative, which will interconnect a host of different personal data, these efforts at mobile biometric identification are due to expand significantly.

This report examines the development of laws, projects and policies designed to advance the development and deployment of biometric technologies for the purposes of individual identification in the European Union over the last two decades. Following the establishment of separate systems for the collection and storage of biometric data on different categories of foreign nationals – from asylum-seekers to visa-holders and others – that data is now being made ‘interoperable’ through consolidation in a single, overarching database. This will provide the technical foundation for policies aimed at stepping up identity checks, with the primary aims of combating identity fraud and increasing the number of deportations.

This poses significant risks for the rights of citizens and non-citizens alike. In a context of entrenched ethnic profiling by law enforcement officials, the provision of new technological means for carrying out identity checks is likely to exacerbate existing discriminatory practices. This calls for renewed efforts by campaigners, activists, lawyers and researchers to investigate, analyse and challenge both the development and acquisition of new policing technologies, and the laws and policies underpinning their use.

The first section of the report examines the gradual development of an overarching biometric identity system at EU level, starting from the establishment of Eurodac (a database for storing asylum-seekers’ fingerprints) at the turn of the century, to the ongoing construction of the Common Identity Repository (CIR), which will integrate biometric and alphanumeric data from five different large-scale databases. It appears that national authorities have so far made little progress in acquiring the technology needed to conduct identity checks using the CIR, indicating the possibility for interventions to ensure that – at the very least – meaningful equality and data protection impact assessments are carried out prior to its introduction.

The following section examines how public funding from the EU’s research and innovation programmes has contributed to the development of biometric identification technologies, in particular those that have later been incorporated into initiatives such as ‘smart borders’. The EU has awarded some €290 million in public funding to the development of biometric technology since 1998. Over the last 15 years, propelled by the war on terror and the search for technological ‘solutions’ to issues such as crime, terrorism and irregular migration, the majority of this funding has gone towards research projects focusing on public security applications for biometrics. EU agencies such as Europol and Frontex are now being given roles in determining research priorities, with the aim of ensuring that the needs of police and border agencies are taken into account. In response, increased public and democratic scrutiny of the programme is required.

The report subsequently elucidates the secretive networks of policing and technology specialists that have sought to refine the policies and practices needed to put these technologies into use, before going on to examine the context into which those technologies are being deployed: one of long-standing ethnic profiling by law enforcement authorities. The introduction of new technologies into this context, with the explicit aim of easing identity checks, is likely to see an increasing number of unwarranted checks against ethnic minority citizens and non-citizens, given the way in which skin colour is all-too-often treated as a proxy for immigration status.

The report includes a number of case studies that seek to illustrate ways in which states have sought to collect and use biometric data in recent years, and to highlight some of the important challenges from civil society actors in response. There are a growing number of initiatives that seek to make connections between anti-racist campaigns, migrants’ rights organisations and technology specialists. This will prove vital in the years to come as states increasingly seek to use new technologies to enforce divisive and exclusionary laws and policies.

In a world in which biometric identification systems are increasingly-present in technologically-advanced societies, it is no surprise that state authorities also seek to make use of them. The introduction of these schemes is generally justified on the grounds that they aid in regulating international mobility, fighting crime and terrorism, and combating ‘illegal’ immigration. This may, in part, be true – but they also grant the state historically unprecedented powers vis-à-vis the individual. In a context of systemic racism and discrimination and a continued drive by both national governments and EU institutions to identify increasing numbers of foreign nationals in order to deport and/or exclude them from their territory, the attempt to extend and entrench the deployment and use of biometric technologies must be interrogated and challenged, as part of the broader fight against state racism and ethnic profiling, and for racial equality and social justice.

Our work is only possible with your support.
Become a Friend of Statewatch from as little as £1/€1 per month.


Spotted an error? If you've spotted a problem with this page, just click once to let us know.

Report error