Privacy International report on ID-cards and terrorism

By EDRi · May 5, 2004

EDRi member Privacy International has published an Interim Report on the link between identity cards and the prevention of terrorism. The report, the first of its kind, was initiated following attempts by the UK and Canadian governments to introduce biometric ID cards.

The report analysed the 25 countries that have been most affected by terrorism since 1986 and concluded that the presence of an ID card appears to have made no significant impact on prevention of these attacks. The report notes that while a link between identity cards and anti-terrorism is frequently suggested, the connection appears to be largely intuitive. Almost no empirical research has been undertaken to clearly establish how identity tokens can be used as a means of preventing terrorism.

The report comments: “The presence of an identity card is not recognised by analysts as a meaningful or significant component in anti-terrorism strategies. Five criteria are generally used to assess and benchmark the level of terrorist threat within a particular country: motivation of terrorists, the presence of terror groups, the scale and frequency of past attacks, efficacy of the groups in carrying out attacks, and prevention – how many attacks have been thwarted by the country”.

The detailed analysis of information in the public domain in the PI study has produced no evidence to establish a connection between identity cards and successful anti-terrorism measures. Terrorists have traditionally moved across borders using tourist visas (such as those who were involved in the US terrorist attacks), or they are domicile and are equipped with legitimate identification cards (such as those who carried out the Madrid bombings).

Of the 25 countries that have been most adversely affected by terrorism since 1986, eighty per cent have national identity cards, one third of which incorporate biometrics. The only two European countries listed in the PI study are Spain and France, both of which have national ID cards coupled with biometrics. Italy, also with an ID card, narrowly missed being included in the list as did Germany, which experienced the Baader- Meinhof terrorist attacks prior to the period covered by the PI study. The research was unable to uncover any instance where the presence of an identity card system was seen as a significant deterrent to terrorist activity.

Almost two thirds of known terrorists operate under their true identity. The remainder use a variety of techniques to forge or impersonate identities. It is possible, the report concludes, that the existence of a high integrity identity card would provide a measure of improved legitimacy for these people.

“Of the ten most frequently employed methods terrorists use to enter or operate within a country, only one would be combated by a national identity card. Most terrorists enter a country on tourist visas which because of their popularity are subject to low-level scrutiny”.

The report refutes claims made by the UK Home Secretary that biometrics can foil terrorist attacks. “At a theoretical level, a national identity card as outlined by the UK government could only assist anti-terrorism efforts if it was used by a terrorist who was both eligible and willing to register for one, if the person was using their true identity, and if intelligence data could be connected to that identity. Only a small fraction of the ninety million crossings into the UK each year are supported by comprehensive security and identity checks”.

PI report (April 2004)

Guardian report (27.04.2004),1320,1204623,00.html

(Contribution by Simon Davies, Privacy International)