Biometrics in EU passports

By EDRi · July 2, 2003

In a remarkably high-speed procedure, the EU Council plans to oblige all Member States of the Union to introduce chips containing biometric data on their passports within little less than a year. Allegedly, this step is taken to meet a U.S. deadline set on 26 October 2004. After that date, according to a law passed eight months after the 11 September attacks, the U.S will demand visas from all travellers entering the U.S. who don’t have DNA code, fingerprints, or iris scans embedded in their travel documents.

It is an open secret however, that the filing of biometric features and their inclusion on personal documents have for a long time been on the wishlist of EU law enforcement officials, in particular those associated with the Schengen Information System (SIS). The EU itself plans to introduce biometric data on visas and residence permits for third country nationals, as part of its fight against illegal immigrants. These data will be stored in the SIS, apparently along with biometric data of EU citizens who have come into conflict with the law.

During the Thessaloniki meeting last month, the EU Heads of State also decided to allocate a further 140 million Euro to the development of these databases, which are already the biggest and most extended in Europe. Already they contain data on more than 800.000 persons, 98 percent of whom have merely been denied entrance at EU external borders.

No decision has been made so far as to which kind of data – DNA, fingerprints or iris scans, or any combination thereof – will be used in the EU passports, and how it will be stored – directly legible or on a chip, encrypted or not. On an earlier occasion, the UK finance minister Gordon Brown, a strong supporter of the plan, spoke out for a chip that might also contain any kind of other data. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung quotes a German Government spokesman, Daniel Höltgen, as saying “It basically depends on the United States and on which feature they require.” And: “The interior minister is not worried about data protection at all. It’s just a matter of believing in the German legal system.”

Presidency Conclusions of the Thessaloniki European Council (19/20.06.2003)

EU Observer: EU to tighten visa and passport security

Translation of Frankfurter Allgemeine Article on biometrics in Germany

(Contribution by Andreas Dietl, consultant on EU privacy issues)