E.U. moves closer to biometric passports

The European Union (E.U.) is on track to begin including biometric identifiers in the passports issued by its member nations. The biometric data is also expected to include, by 2008, fingerprints, though E.U. officials are debating whether the fingerprint data should be made obligatory.

The European Parliament on Thursday approved a report, known as the Carlos Coelho report, or Coelho report, which was issued by the European Commission and calls for regulation of standards for security features and biometrics in E.U. passports. The report is the basis for the regulation, which seeks to make the use of a facial image in passports obligatory. It allows the member states to choose whether or not to introduce biometric fingerprints.

The Coelho report was adopted after 471 members of the European Parliament (MEPs) voted for it, according to Danny De Paepe, spokesman for Parliament’s Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee on Commission proposals. Only 118 MEPs voted against, while six abstained, he said. The Commission is the E.U.’s executive branch, and the Parliament is one of the union’s legislative arms.

The Council of Ministers, another E.U. legislative body, is expected to approve the draft regulation on Friday, though it is trying to make fingerprints in passports obligatory.

The legislation is expected to reach an E.U. “details committee” in January, where members are given about two months to hammer out the details of its implementation. Once the committee completes its work, member states will be given 18 months before they must begin instituting facial images in passports, and 36 months until biometric fingerprints come into play.

Member states will have two options regarding facial images: using a digitized version of a facial image or using a biometric facial scan consisting of 1,840 plot points on a person’s face. That biometric technology is more expensive and labor intensive to obtain, but contains more information.

Because it is a regulation, and not a directive, the law would not effect the U.K. and Ireland, though the U.K. government already decided to require biometric facial identifiers in passports beginning next year. Denmark will decide within a period of six months after the Council adopts the regulation whether it will incorporate the measure into its national law. The U.K., Ireland, and Denmark are E.U. members but have special arrangements regarding regulations.

One of the major drivers of the regulation is the U.S. biometric authentication requirement in its Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act of 2002. The law requires the 27 nations currently participating in the U.S. Visa Waiver Program to being instituting new passports with biometric features that support facial recognition by Oct. 26, 2005. The program allows a U.K. citizen, for example, to visit the U.S. for a set period without a visa.

The U.K. Parliament said it expects the U.S. to push back the 2005 deadline as additional time is needed, in part, to make sure data protection requirements are considered.

“The U.S. government has been pressing hard on this, though it has no intention of requiring biometrics in the passports of its own citizens, which is in a manner, very strange,” said Tony Bunyan, editor of U.K.-based European civil liberties group Statewatch. “But then again, the E.U. is on many counts streets ahead of the U.S. in terms of mass surveillance.”

De Paepe agreed that while pressure from the U.S. was a factor, the primary reason behind the regulation is concern for the security of citizens living in the E.U. member states.

The European Commission already produced draft regulations to introduce, by 2005, biometric data (fingerprints and facial images) on visas and resident permits for non-E.U. nationals. The information would then be stored on national and E.U. databases that will be accessible through the Visa Information System held on what is called the Schengen Information System.

The Parliament on Thursday expressed opposition to establishing a central database of E.U. passports and travel documents containing all E.U. passport holders’ biometric and other data. A separate draft directive covers the terms for such a database, but the Council does not support it.

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