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EU biometric RFID scheme unworkable, says EU tech report

Orwellian system breaks self. How appropriate...

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European plans for biometric passports and visas have been derailed by, er, European plans for biometric passports and visas. A technical committee set up to report to the Council of Ministers on the implementation of a uniform visa format has concluded that collisions between contactless chips in a passport would make the current plans unworkable, reports Statewatch.

The basic problem was eminently predictable, and stems from plans for a standard form of biometric identification across a number of different documents, not all of which are entirely controlled by Europe. Notably, the common European passport format is not, if you think about it, entirely controlled by Europe. So how does that work (or not), then?

The technical committee's report commences by saying it is feasible to integrate an RFID chip and two biometric identifiers in a passport "while assuring a high level of security" - you may or may not agree entirely, but so far so good, as far as the committee is concerned. But what happens when you try to put an RFID biometric visa in the passport as well? This "leads to difficulties for the reader to read out the valid visa in case there are several contactless chips on different visa in the same passport."

At the moment Europe's plans for ID consists of two biometric identifiers, facial and fingerprint, for passport and for visas and residence permits for third country nationals. The passport plans theoretically stem from ICAO's standard for biometric passports (which only requires facial) and from US requirements for biometric passports for visitors (again, facial acceptable) from late next year. The European Commission has however been busily devising a far more wide-ranging system of biometric ID with the enthusiastic support of the Council of Ministers. The elected European Parliament has been somewhat less keen, but is generally ignored. Next on the agenda are plans for a common format for ID cards.

Conceivably you could produce a compatible system for RFID-readable biometric passports, residence permits and ID, because European control of the standards here makes it at least theoretically possible to avoid collisions between chips. The ID cards/permits would only have one chip on them (provided the permit was a separate card and not in the passport), and the passport system's operation would only become doubtful if other countries started putting RFID biometric visas in them. But, um, seeing that's precisely what Europe intends to do to third country passports, it would seem obvious that other countries would want to start doing it too. This is where you really start to run into problems. The report considers the possibility of several such visas in the same passport, and concludes that the proposed regulation is "technically not feasible."

It considers a number of proposed permutations and finds they're all unworkable, but tentatively puts forward two others that aren't in the current proposals. A "visa sticker and separate biometric visa smart card" could work, but there's obvious potential for losing the card, while a sticker with no chip, but with biometrics in a barcode wouldn't cause collision problems, but would need a different reader, and would only have space for two fingerprint templates, not ten. Basically, the plans are a mess.

The report however says that some delegations now wish to wait for the introduction of Europe's Visa Information Service (VIS), which has a target of 2007-8, to produce a fix. The VIS is intended to collect biometrics from visa applicants and store them first on national databases, then on a central EU database, which in theory would mean biometrics could be compared from records rather than locally between bearer and document. This, considering that the biometric passport system just adopted by Europe is currently specifically limited to a local compare, mightn't strike the powers that be as entirely ideal.

Britain's position as a non-Schengen state which is planning to introduce its own 'similar but different' biometric system, where all British documents are intended to be part of the same ID system, complicates matters further. In this week's debate on the second reading of the ID Bill Immigration Minister Des Browne welcomed agreement "to introduce biometric travel documents throughout the EU", but failed to mention that the UK wasn't actually party to that agreement, or that chip compatibility issues had been identified.

Humorously, Statewatch quotes a Council note on visa security and controls describing the proposed visa sticker, and saying that any attempt to interfere with the chip would mean that "it self-destructs" or, alternatively, it explodes. So might a visa chip being interfered with by another visa chip think it was under attack and, oh dear... ®

Related Stories:

Europe kicks UK out of biometric passport club
UK ID cards to be issued with first biometric passports
Fingerprints to become compulsory for all EU passports

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