The European Parliament signed up to a plan Wednesday to introduce computerized biometric passports including people's fingerprints as well as their photographs, despite criticism from civil liberties groups and security experts who argue that the move is flawed on technical grounds.
An overwhelming majority of members of the European Parliament supported the bill, making only modest changes to a proposal originally drawn up by the European Commission, the executive body of the E.U.
Pressure to introduce biometric passports began in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S.. Adding fingerprints to passports, it was argued, would improve document security by making it harder for criminals to forge identification documents or travel under stolen passports.
Many civil liberties groups oppose the use of fingerprints for technical as well as philosophical reasons. Philosophically, they are opposed to the creation of a computer database containing so much personal information about innocent citizens. Technically, they argue that biometric passports are only as safe as the existing paper documents they will replace, and could even make it easier for criminals to travel across borders once they obtain false biometric IDs.
Some security specialists agree. "There is a risk that border officials and police will rely too heavily on the technology, at the expense of old-fashioned techniques for identifying travelers," said Richard Clayton, a security researcher based at the security laboratories at Cambridge University.
"With the existing passports, border guards look closely at people's faces. If the emphasis switches to fingerprints there is a risk that you get rid of the human element in the job, such as observing if a person fidgets or looks nervous as they try to pass through passport control," Clayton said.
He added that fingerprints are not terribly reliable as an identifier, which raises potentially serious problems when a false positive identification of a wanted person is made. He cited several examples of false positive identifications.
In the wake of the Madrid train bombing in 2004, Brandon Mayfield, a lawyer from Oregon in the U.S., was arrested and held in custody for two weeks because his fingerprints matched those of one of the suspected bombers. He was later released when the error was identified.
Similarly, in 1997 Shirley McKie, a Scottish police detective was accused of committing murder because her fingerprints were falsely identified at a murder scene she said she had never visited. It turned out that, like Mayfield, her thumbprint was almost identical to the one of the suspect.
Clayton didn't totally dismiss the value of biometric passports that use fingerprints, but he warned that lawmakers "are getting seduced by the technology, despite the evidence."
"They are spending money on technology for the sake of it without thinking through the problem of identification and asking whether the technology actually helps," he said.
However, he agreed that biometric passports would be harder to forge than conventional ones. "They may well make old techniques obsolete -- ones that involve a criminal searching for a person with a similar face, then stealing that person's passport," he said.
Members of Parliament rejected the Commission's plan to force children to carry biometric passports. Young childrens' fingerprints change as they get older and are therefore even less reliable as a means of identification. However, instead of being included in the passport of a parent, the MEPs agreed that all children should have their own passports. This would, they argued, make child trafficking harder.
People with no hands would obviously be exempt from the new fingerprint-based biometric passport system. Instead, they would have to apply for temporary, 12- month passports in order to travel, the MEPs agreed.
The new law makes no specific reference to bricklayers, who frequently erase their fingerprints in the course of their working lives. "I suppose they'll get classified as disabled and will have to travel on temporary passports," Clayton said.
They new passports will be introduced from June 29.