The land of the free is imposing privacy-busting requirements on its visitors.
At America’s insistence, passports are about to get their biggest overhaul since they were introduced. They are to be fitted with computer chips that have been loaded with digital photographs of the bearer (so that the process of comparing the face on the passport with the face on the person can be automated), digitised fingerprints and even scans of the bearer’s irises, which are as unique to people as their fingerprints.
There are so many concerns that one does not know where to start:
For one thing, the data on these chips will be readable remotely, without the bearer knowing. And—again at America’s insistence—those data will not be encrypted, so anybody with a suitable reader, be they official, commercial, criminal or terrorist, will be able to check a passport holder’s details.
So we have unencrypted details about an individual, recorded in by an unreliable manner (biometrics). That’s what I call the worst of both worlds…
A second difficulty is the reliability of biometric technology. Facial-recognition systems work only if the photograph is taken with proper lighting and an especially bland expression on the face. Even then, the error rate for facial-recognition software has proved to be as high as 10% in tests. If that were translated into reality, one person in ten would need to be pulled aside for extra screening. Fingerprint and iris-recognition technology have significant error rates, too. So, despite the belief that biometrics will make crossing a border more efficient and secure, it could well have the opposite effect, as false alarms become the norm.
And far more unpleasant as you already will be ‘guilty’ of not having your non-papers in order.
The scariest problem of all is the remote-readability of the chip, which combined with unencrypted data on it, make it designed for clandestine remote reading. Deliberately.
The ICAO specification refers quite openly to the idea of a “walk-through” inspection with the person concerned “possibly being unaware of the operation”.
Privacy and liberty implications of this are enourmous… and it gets worse. Identity theft will become a matter of setting up such clandestine remote readings. Terrorists will be able to know the nationality of those they attack.
Even the authorities realised that this would be double-plus-ungood and are looking for ways to ‘protect’ the chip either by blocking radio waves with a Faraday cage or an electronic lock. As a result, some countries may need special equipment or software to read an EU passport, which undermines the ideal of a global, interoperable standard. And so we come the full joyous circle of government ‘compentence’…