NGOs call for halt to biometric passports

By EDRi · April 7, 2004

Over forty non-governmental organisations from around the world signed an open letter to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) on 30 March 2004.

Privacy International (an EDRI member) and the American Civil Liberties Union wrote the letter calling on the ICAO to reconsider its standards-setting on biometric travel documents.

The ICAO proposes that all passports worldwide implement RFID chips to support face-scanning, and possibly other forms of biometric data, including fingerprinting and iris scanning. This information would be collected at the national level, but then compared to and possibly stored in international databases. Already the EU has proposed to build on the idea in order to create a central register of fingerprints of all EU passport and visa holders.

The letter says that the ICAO is mandating national identification systems, requiring governments to collect citizens’ biometrics, without any regard to national politics and laws. A number of governments have noted the challenges to privacy and data protection, but such concerns would be rendered powerless in the face of this international standard and requirement.

Amidst claims of efficiency and security, the ICAO argues that its mandate is merely to set standards for biometric passports, as called for by its member states and U.S. border requirements. This is even as the technology of choice, face-scanning and facial recognition, is questionable in its accuracy. The letter reminds the ICAO that:

*Facial recognition technologies may reveal racial or ethnic origin; – The U.S. General Accounting Office warns that facial recognition is the only biometric that can be used for other surveillance applications, such as pinpointing individuals filmed on video cameras;
*According to a U.S. government report, the reliability rates quickly deteriorated as photographs went out of date, climbing to 15 per cent after only about 3 years for the best systems tested; and
*Implementation of facial recognition on a global scale is likely to increase errors, and will lead to delays, duress, and confusion.

The signatories of the letter wish for the ICAO to impose restraints on the undue collection, processing, retention, and transfers of data. In particular, they ask that the ICAO
Follow through on earlier promises to review privacy implications of biometrics and trans-border personal information transfers; – Release clear and binding privacy requirements; – Prevent, by design or biometric selection, the development of biometric databases;
*Refrain from adopting RFID or biometric standards until their privacy and surveillance implications can be more fully evaluated.

Open Letter to ICAO (30.03.2004)

Privacy International policy library

(Contribution by Gus Hosein, Privacy International)