26th Jan 2021

EU to launch biometric passports by summer

MEPs on Wednesday (14 January) backed new rules on the introduction of biometric passports throughout the EU later this year, while exempting children under 12 years from having fingerprints included in their passports.

The rules were approved at a first reading by an overwhelming majority of MEPs – 594 against 51, while 37 abstained.

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  • The fingerprints of children under 12 were found not to be sufficiently reliable because they change as the child grows older (Photo: Wikipedia)

The parliamentarians underlined the need to improve document security in the EU by introducing "more reliable biometric data, namely fingerprints," and highlighted the different criteria member states currently apply when checking the passport applicants' identity.

"Many countries require that the citizen applying for a passport actually present him or herself in person, together with their documents and photographs, and in these cases the officials at the passport-issuing office can see if that person bears a resemblance to the photo presented," Polish Christian Democrat Urszula Gacek said during a plenary debate on the issue in Strasbourg on Tuesday.

But in some states, in particular the UK, "applications by post are the norm, and the authenticity of the photo is only confirmed by a so-called 'professional person' who has known the applicant for at least two years," she indicated.

The new rules stipulate that all EU countries, as well as in Iceland, Norway and Switzerland, should start issuing passports containing biometric elements - such as facial images and fingerprints - as of 29 June this year.

States have until 2012 to fully implement the rules and current passports will remain valid for travelling for most countries until then.

Meanwhile, some member states - such as Germany, France and the Netherlands - have started issuing the new passports before the June deadline.

Exemption for children under 12

However, under a compromise agreed by both the European Commission and the Parliament, children younger than 12, as well as people with certain disabilities making them unable to give finger prints, will benefit from an exemption from the rule.

Although no exemptions were initially planned, pilot projects in some countries found the fingerprints of young children not to be sufficiently reliable, because they change as the child grows older.

"If an agreement had not been found [among the MEPs], everybody would have had to give their fingerprints, even the newborn, as long as they would travel abroad with a passport. So, I would really like to express the satisfaction of the commission" about the compromise agreed, EU justice commissioner Jacques Barrot said during the debate.

The new legislation also introduces the so-called "one person, one passport" principle, aiming particularly at combating the traffic of children by introducing passports for them. Up until now, parents' passports often covered their children as well.

Some concerns remain

Some MEPs expressed concerns about the biometric passports, however.

Latvian Green MEP Tatjana Zdanok pointed to the dangers linked to "the extensive use of biometrics."

"We strongly oppose the extensive introduction of biometrics until its necessity is proven beyond reasonable doubt. We believe that it has crucial implications for personal data safety and for fundamental rights," she said.

"We strongly believe that biometrics in passports should only be used for verifying the authenticity of the document or the identity of the holder… We cannot agree that everyone holding a European passport should be thought of as a potential suspect, whose fingerprints are to be stored," she added.

Cypriot MEP Adamos Adamou from the leftist GUE/NGL group echoed these concerns, saying: "The political scope of this regulation clearly seeks to legalise the use of biometric data and puts us in a state of mind of constant surveillance and deprivation of privacy."

More security measures and data collection "only leads to abuses of authority and offences against political liberties", he added.

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