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25th Jan 2021

Security trumps privacy, EU court says

  • EU rules requiring fingerprints for passports do not breach fundamental rights, says the European Court of Justice (Photo: EU's attempts)

Ensuring protection against the fraudulent use of passports outweighs personal privacy concerns about mandatory fingerprinting, the European Union's top court said Thursday.

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled on Thursday (17 October) that although the taking and storing of fingerprints for passports breached privacy and personal data rights, it did not breach the EU's Charter of Fundamental Rights and was in line with EU law.

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Article eight of the Charter includes an explicit right to the protection of personal data, but the Luxembourg-based Court ruled that the infringement of privacy was justified because fingerprinting reduced fraud.

"The contested measures pursue, in particular, the general interest objective of preventing illegal entry into the EU. To that end, they are intended to prevent the falsification of passports and the fraudulent use thereof," stated the Luxembourg-based court.

The case was brought by German-resident Michael Schwarz, who applied for a passport in his home town of Bochum, but refused to have his fingerprints taken.

Under regulations agreed by EU governments in 2009, passports and travel documents must include biometric data including two fingerprints together with a photograph, although the UK and Ireland have an exemption from the rules.

The court also noted that the legislation explicitly states that the fingerprint data can only be used to verify identity and the authenticity of a passport.

The use of biometric data to track travellers and police border control remains a highly charged issue across the EU and elsewhere.

The US is among a growing number of countries which take fingerprints from all non-residents wishing to enter the country.

Meanwhile, government ministers and MEPs in Brussels are currently scrutinising plans unveiled by the European Commission to fingerprint anyone who enters the EU under its "smart borders" proposal at an estimated cost of over €1 billion.

The commission says the system is necessary to improve the EU's border control and would update border control checks, reduce waiting times, and help border guards implement EU border rules

Critics of the plan, which includes an Entry/Exit System (EES) that would require up to ten fingerprints and store the personal details of any non-EU citizen over the age of 12 in a database, say it is too costly, uses unproven technology and risks violating numerous privacy rights.

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