Skip Links

Biometric passports agreed to in EU

By Paul Meller, IDG News Service
January 14, 2009 12:50 PM ET

IDG News Service - The European Parliament signed up to a plan Wednesday to introduce computerized biometric passports including people's fingerprints as well as their photographs, despite criticism from civil liberties groups and security experts who argue that the move is flawed on technical grounds. (Watch a slideshow on biometrics.)

An overwhelming majority of members of the European Parliament supported the bill, making only modest changes to a proposal originally drawn up by the European Commission, the executive body of the E.U.

Pressure to introduce biometric passports began in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.nited States. Adding fingerprints to passports, it was argued, would improve document security by making it harder for criminals to forge identification documents or travel under stolen passports.

Many civil liberties groups oppose the use of fingerprints for technical as well as philosophical reasons. Philosophically, they are opposed to the creation of a computer database containing so much personal information about innocent citizens. Technically, they argue that biometric passports are only as safe as the existing paper documents they will replace, and could even make it easier for criminals to travel across borders once they obtain false biometric IDs.

Some security specialists agree. "There is a risk that border officials and police will rely too heavily on the technology, at the expense of old-fashioned techniques for identifying travelers," said Richard Clayton, a security researcher at the security laboratories at Cambridge University.

"With the existing passports, border guards look closely at people's faces. If the emphasis switches to fingerprints there is a risk that you get rid of the human element in the job, such as observing if a person fidgets or looks nervous as they try to pass through passport control," Clayton said.

He added that fingerprints are not terribly reliable as an identifier, which raises potentially serious problems when a false positive identification of a wanted person is made. He cited several examples of false positive identifications.

In the wake of the Madrid train bombing in 2004, Brandon Mayfield, a lawyer from Oregon, was arrested and held in custody for two weeks because his fingerprints matched those of one of the suspected bombers. He was later released when the error was identified.

Similarly, in 1997 Shirley McKie, a Scottish police detective was accused of committing murder because her fingerprints were falsely identified at a murder scene she said she had never visited. It turned out that, like Mayfield, her thumbprint was almost identical to the one of the suspect.

Clayton didn't totally dismiss the value of biometric passports that use fingerprints, but he warned that lawmakers "are getting seduced by the technology, despite the evidence."

"They are spending money on technology for the sake of it without thinking through the problem of identification and asking whether the technology actually helps," he said.

Our Commenting Policies
Latest News
rssRss Feed
View more Latest News