As the year draws to a close, EFF is looking back at the major trends influencing digital rights in 2012 and discussing where we are in the fight for free expression, innovation, fair use, and privacy. Click here to read other blog posts in this series.
Around the world, systems of identification that employ automatic recognition of individuals’ faces, fingerprints, or irises are gaining ground. Biometric ID systems are increasingly being deployed at international border checkpoints, by governments seeking to implement national ID schemes, and by private-sector actors. Yet as biometric data is collected from more and more individuals, privacy concerns about the use of this technology are also attracting attention. Below are several examples of the year’s most prominent debates around biometrics.
- FRANCE: In early March, the French National Assembly (Assemblée Nationale) passed a law proposing the creation of a new biometric ID card for French citizens, saying the measure would combat “identity fraud.” Embedded in the cards would be a compulsory chip containing personal information such as fingerprints, a photograph, home addresses, height, and eye color. All of this information would be stored in a central database. French Senator François Pillet called the initiative a time bomb for civil liberties. Near the end of March, however, the French Constitutional Council ruled that the new law proposing the introduction of a new biometric ID for French citizens was unconstitutional.
- MEXICO: Documents obtained by EFF under Mexico’s Transparency and Access to Information Act show that as of May, nearly 4 million minors had been enrolled into registries associated with a new Mexican ID card for youths. Billed as a document that can help streamline registration in schools and health facilities, Mexico’s Personal ID Card for minors comes embedded with digital records of iris images, fingerprints, a photograph, and a signature. Despite concerns about privacy implications raised by organizations such as the Federal Institute for Access to Public Information, the Mexican government is now poised to launch the next step of the project – extending the ID cards to adults.
- EUROPEAN UNION: The issue of privacy concerns surrounding biometric passports in Europe made its way to the European Court of Justice (ECJ), the highest court in the European Union. In September, the Dutch Council of State (Raad van State, the highest Dutch administrative court) asked the ECJ to decide if the regulation requiring fingerprints in passports and travel documents violates citizens’ right to privacy. The case entered a Dutch court after three Dutch citizens were denied passports, and another citizen was denied an ID card, for refusing to provide their fingerprints. The ECJ ruling will play an important role in determining the legality of including biometrics in passports and travel documents in the European Union.
- INDIA: The Unique Identity Authority of India (UIDAI) continued collecting fingerprints, facial photographs, and iris scans from Indian residents for its massive unique ID endeavor, known as Aadhaar, which will result in the world’s largest biometric database and will compile 10 times as much data as all of Facebook.
The program is moving forward at a rapid clip despite privacy concerns raised by advocates such as the Centre for Internet and Society in India, and the Indian Parliament. In addition, a slew of other government agencies have moved ahead with biometric collection programs of their own. And just this past week, Visa and a group of Indian banks unveiled the “Saral Money” account, which links individuals’ Aadhaar numbers with credit card transactions and introduces a further complication into the privacy concerns inherent in this massive e-government endeavor.
Rebecca Bowe serves as International Privacy Coordinator on EFF’s international team. Prior to joining EFF, she worked as a reporter, covering everything from local elections, to social justice movements, to energy and environmental issues in California. Rebecca remains active in the Freedom of Information Committee of the Northern California Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, which hosts an annual awards ceremony to spotlight journalists, citizens, whistle blowers, legal professionals, students and others engaged in strengthening and upholding the freedom of information. In her spare time, Rebecca can be found exploring hiking trails along the California coastline.
Editor’s Note: Here is an illustration from a US Dept of Homeland Security Paper711.13 KB showing how biometrics is colleced and stored.
This document was developed by the Information Sharing and Technical Assistance Branch of the United States Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (US-VISIT) Program as a primary reference for implementing biometric standards requirements for US-VISIT systems. It provides a baseline for implementing new and improved biometric technologies, capabilities, and services, with the aim of promoting and achieving maximum stakeholder interoperability. The information in this document will support the development of US-VISIT data-sharing agreements with other U.S. Government agencies and foreign government partners.