Ministers set to agree fingerprint passports

FINGERPRINTS and digital face scans will be stored on a chip in people's passports within three years and the information will be available to law enforcement agencies throughout the European Union, justice ministers are expected to agree today.

This is set to reverse a decision made by the ministers just a few months ago when they decided to exclude fingerprints from biometric identifiers on passports.

Civil rights groups and the EU's own data protection agency have warned that the new identification system and EU-wide data base will make suspects of ordinary citizens and is open to abuse.

The Taoiseach and political leaders from the other EU member states are expected to rubber-stamp the agreement next month as part of tougher anti-terrorism measures and to prevent credit card theft. Anybody who needs a new or renewed passport will have to attend a special session where their face will be digitally scanned and their fingerprints taken.

The information will be placed on a national biometric database and on an EU-wide register which will be accessible to law enforcement agencies.

It is unclear whether US agencies, or others, will have access to the information or if citizens will have a right to know what is being held on them.

The EU's advisory body on data protection has said that biometrics in visas and passports should only be used to verify the identity of the travel document holder.

Chairperson of the so-called Article 29 committee Peter Schaar said that the information need only be stored in the document.

If it is stored in a central database it should only be used for travel identification purposes and citizens should know what agencies will have access to it.

The civil rights organisation Statewatch warned that the approach means every citizen is being treated as a suspect - a fundamental change to our legal system.

Tony Bunyan, Statewatch editor, said: "This spells the beginning of the wholesale surveillance of movement where everyone is a suspect. It seems that nothing has been learnt from the European experience of totalitarian regimes that also subsumed personal privacy to the demands of the state."

The intrusion into personal privacy is compounded by the failure to limit access to the data held and its further use for purposes other than confirming a person's identity, he said. The US has been demanding biometric identifiers in passports for some time and has warned that Europeans without them next October will have to apply for visas when visiting the US and will be fingerprinted.

The U-turn on including fingerprints in the biometric passport follows a decision by five of the EU's largest members - Britain, Germany, France, Italy and Spain - at a private meeting in Florence last week.

Germany and Britain also want iris-scans to be included as a third identifier, but no agreement is expected on this today.

Justice Minister Michael McDowell favours having facial scans on Irish passports within 24 months and but would have preferred to have deferred including fingerprints for another year until the technology was better developed.

Ireland has already made arrangements for a chip to hold biometric information to be included in new passports.

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