Dr Charles Tannock

Member of the European Parliament for London

Biometric ID may snare travelers

CNN.com - 25 February 2005

By Despina Afentouli for CNN

LONDON, England (CNN) -- Biometric passports, described by some as a global identification card, are just around the corner -- and it could mean easier travel for business travelers or a hassle for others.

Viewed as an important tool for tracking potential terrorists and illegal immigrants, your personal data could soon be made available to authorities you are unaware of.

"[Travelers] will be surprised at how easily they can become the subject of a criminal investigation, just because they have left their fingerprints inside a bank that was robbed two hours later," Thilo Weichert of the German Data Protection Association told CNN.

"They would then have to prove their innocence, and the whole principle that the burden of proof lies with the prosecution could be turned upside down."

Regular travelers may get snared up more regularly in security measures aimed at enforcing European border protection.

"Initially, new measures may slow security and passport checks at airports, as it will take time to come into effect," says Sajjan Gohel from the Asia-Pacific Foundation.

"Measures will be more sophisticated, but less physically present ... it depends on how each country will control passengers."

Your information could be shared among European countries to track suspicious movements. Spain, France, UK, the Netherlands, Germany and Italy have been leading the way.

However, there is opposition to biometric identification. Some say measures could affect travelers' basic human rights and do little to improve security.

"Once we talk about security, human rights always come second," says Baroness Ludford, a member of the European Parliament (MEP). "There is a fear that European enlargement implies a lesser ability to combat crime, since coordination between states has not been tested," says Christos Zacharakis, a former MEP.

The Greek Communist Party believes new security measures will allow Europol -- the body that coordinates cross-border criminal investigations -- to accuse people of being suspicious of committing a crime in the future.

Also Europol staff will not be obliged to give evidence in a law court, citing safety concerns.

"These proposals are yet another result of the war on terrorism ... which have much more to do with political and social control than fighting terrorism," says Tony Bunyan, editor at the Statewatch Observatory on Surveillance in Europe.

Yet respect for human rights "has been the cornerstone of the European Union ever since its creation," argues Konstantinos Hatzidakis, an MEP.

"Personally I would not mind being extensively checked for my own security. I have nothing to hide," explains Charles Tannock, another MEP.

"Those who disagree with the new measures are the ones who might want to hide a suspicious action."

Finding the balance between security and human rights is an issue. But Paul Wilkinson, professor on political violence at the University of Saint Andrews, Scotland, believes a balance can be found.

"Respect for the rule of law and upholding of human rights does not mean one has to be soft on terrorism," he argues.