Biometrics experts sceptical about quick introduction

By EDRi · October 6, 2004

The Europarl Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) today organised a hearing with experts on biometrics. In his opening remarks the MEP Carlos Coelho (Conservative, Portugal) said he generally agreed with the objective of securing people’s identities, but has some doubts about adding biometric identifiers to travel documents. Coelho is the rapporteur on 3 different reports for the European Parliament involving the inclusion of biometric features in personal documents.

After listening to what the four experts had to tell him, Mr. Coelho’s closing remarks sounded somewhat more critical: “Technological solutions seem handy sometimes, but may hide the new problems they may be causing.

While the contrary can also apply – technology being blocked because measures to work around the problem don’t come to the surface – we must make sure that there is a fair balance between the values of security and of freedom. None of the two may be sacrificed for the other.” In the two-and-a-half hours that lay between the two remarks, four experts had warned unanimously for the unforeseeable effects of what could be a premature introduction of a technology not yet ready for wide-spread application. Julian Ashbourn who acts as an adviser to the British, U.S. and Japanese governments on biometrics, warned that the focus was presently too much on technological aspects of biometrics, while societal impacts that would inevitably concern the present-day generation as well as our grandchildren were largely undiscussed. In the public discussion, assumptions on the values of biometrics were being made that were simply false – like believing that biometrics could prove that a person actually is who she or he claims to be. “History will show”, Mr. Ashbourn said, “that certain assumptions involving biometrics will prove to be ill founded.” If related biometric-related initiatives were poorly conceived, states risked the alienation of responsible citizens. Much more discussion, M. Ashbourn argued, was needed before biometrics had sufficient acceptance to be widely implemented – a 25 year time frame would be realistic.

Jonathan Cave, an economic scientist with the University of Warwick in Britain, supported much of Mr. Ashbourn’s arguments. He said the possible benefits of biometrics were often regarded as a surplus value, even if indeed they weren’t, because biometrics provided a degree of identification that is not needed for many services. When calculating these benefits, it was often ignored that biometrics – and in particular standardised interoperable ones – also created barriers for competitors who could not afford to buy the adequate equipment. Such a recipe for market failure would cause additional costs.

Paul de Hert of the Dutch University of Leiden warned that biometrics were part of a trend towards a more pro-active, intelligence-led form of policing that originated in the United States but became increasingly popular with police forces also inside the EU. He said this trend must be countered, among other things with a Directive on data Protection in the EU’s Third Pillar, where no data protection exists until now. Mr. de Hert expressed his fear that storing the data in giant databases instead of a chip on a smart card could cause additional vulnerabilities, and he called for an option for people to opt out of a wide-spread biometrics regime.

Bernadette Dorizzi, a Professor at the Institut national des Télécommunications in Paris, discussed technological aspects of biometrics. While the technology itself was not new, Mrs. Dorizzi said, the possibilities of storing and processing it for milions of individuals added a new dimension. No biometric system could be expected to be one hundred percent accurate, and some, like face recognition, had enormous failure rates of 40 percent. DNA was the only identifier that could be considered unique to a person, but it would in the European context be neither acceptable nor practicable to introduce it as an identifier. Only China plans to include a DNA pattern as an identifier on national identity cards. Fingerprints and Iris scans provided more security, but it must be kept in mind that they are still under development.

Proposal for a Council Regulation on standards for security features and biometrics in EU citizens’ passports (18.02.2004)

Avanti, the independent non-profit web resource for biometrics, run by Julian Ashbourn

(Contribution by Andreas Dietl, EDRI EU Affairs director)