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26th Sep 2021

Doubts over EU Parliament's new 'fingerprint' plan

  • The European Parliament's new system would cost more than €100,000 (Photo: EFF Photos)

The European Parliament's plans to replace the current paper-based MEPs attendance control system with a digital register, based on a fingerprint scanner, raises "critical concerns," the EU data protection watchdog has warned.

The parliament's bureau, responsible for the budget and administration, decided in 2019 that the central attendance register should be digitalised - following a voluntary test phase.

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This system would record MEPs' attendance by scanning their fingerprint with a reader, avoiding the risk of impersonation - such as a person signing on behalf of an absent MEP.

Accordingly, this would allow MEPs to "automatically" receive their allowances from the institution.

This electronic register system would still require MEPs to be on parliament's premises for at least four hours, in order for them to be able to claim the daily allowance. MEPs receive some €300 subsistence allowance for every day that they sign into the registry.

Nevertheless, the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) has called on the parliament to consider other alternative options that would not require the use of such sensitive data.

Possible alternatives include a badge-based system and a one-time password or a similar confirmation feature generated in MEPs' phones.

For the badge-based system - already tested by more than 270 MEPs - the parliament considers the risks of impersonation as "high".

Yet, the EDPS has called for further explanations and a fraud-likelihood assessment of the badge-based system, arguing that "the main driver for processing biometric data [is] the objective of preventing fraud".

As a rule, the EU's data protection legislation (GDPR) prohibits the processing of biometric data, such as facial images or fingerprints, without consent - unless a specific exception applies.

But the current wording of the EU Parliament's internal rules is "insufficiently clear as a legal basis" for the processing of biometric information as the primary means for attesting attendance of MEPs, the EU data protection watchdog said in its conclusions published on Tuesday (30 March).

The EDPS insists that it is important to justify the "necessity" and "proportionality" of introducing such a system.

Should the parliament finally implement this system, there should be an alternative system for those MEPs whose fingerprints are not recognised, the EU watchdog points out.

Experts have previously warned that the elderly can pose a challenge to fingerprint recognition systems due to increased rates of failure to capture fingerprints.

Given that the GDPR also prohibits automated decision-making with no human involvement, the EU watchdog recommends the parliament add measures to safeguard MEP's rights and freedoms.

"The EDPS has made several useful recommendations to further enhance data protection that will of course be taken into consideration by the European Parliament," a parliament spokesperson told EUobserver.

The parliament is expected to adopt EDPS's recommendations within three months.

€100,000 cost

Meanwhile, answers to a freedom of information request put forward by German MEP Patrick Breyer (Pirate Party) revealed that this new system would cost more than €100,000.

However, other documents on the project, including the data protection impact assessment, have not been made public yet.

Breyer is against this digital system as he considers it "unnecessary" and "likely unlawful".

"We shall not allow large-scale processing of biometrics to become a new normality," he said

"In times of a pandemic and in view of the financial sufferings of many citizens, we should know many more pressing needs for spending this much money," he added.

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