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Civil liberty group pans EU biometrics plans

Commerce ahead of privacy

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Civil liberties groups have condemned an EU study on the possible social impact of biometric technologies – including fingerprint, iris and face recognition – as "technologically determinist" and say it puts economics and profit above liberties and privacy.

The report (pdf) from the European Union's joint research centre (JRC) describes biometrics as "inevitable and necessary". The report concludes that if biometrics is going to be the technology du jour, Europe might as well be at the forefront of the field, and get stuck in selling the stuff as quickly as possible, according to civil liberties campaigners, Statewatch.

Statewatch points to "grave reservations" held by experts in the field. For example, professor of law at Brussels University, Paul de Hert, notes that the technology systems are not properly understood. He wrote: "There are no empirical data about the current performance of the existing systems as there are no precise data about why new systems and facilities are needed".

Julian Ashbourn, chairman of the International Biometric Foundation, is also unconvinced. He warns that in implementing cross-border biometrics, nations will lose control of the data held on their citizens: "The provisions of national data protection acts become meaningless when data crosses national borders. Furthermore, the ability of the individual to challenge incorrect assumptions with respect to their own data is highly questionable," he writes.

So in the face of these kind of questions, how does the JRC explain its wholehearted support of implementing biometrics? Well, it's a great business opportunity. Once everyone is used to being fingerprinted for their passports, they'll be happy to be fingerprinted for everything: "Once the public becomes accustomed to using biometrics at the borders, their use in commercial applications will follow".

Implementation of biometric passports could create "a vibrant European industry sector," the report says, calling on governments to kickstart a "competitive supply market".

The report is not without more cautionary notes, however. It recognises that the technology does have its limitations, and makes reference to several areas where more research is needed, calling for large scale field trials, as information on how biometrics would work in a large population is "limited". ®

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