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Fingerprints may be added to all EU ID cards — but at what cost to data privacy?

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Fingerprints may be added to all EU ID cards — but at what cost to data privacy?

Fingerprints may be added to all EU ID cards — but at what cost to data privacy?
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Compulsory fingerprinting for all ID card users will help to counter terrorism — that's the argument the European Commission put forward as part of its new security measures aimed at bolstering security in the bloc.

The addition of biometric identifiers, including fingerprints and facial data, to European Union ID cards formed part of a law proposed Tuesday with the purpose of "denying terrorists and criminals the means and space to act".

A spokeswoman for the European Commission told Euronews the law was being presented to: "Improve the security features of existing ID cards and harmonise their features across the EU."

More secure documents would enhance EU external border management and increase safeguards against falsification and fraud, according to the Commission, but there are also risks associated with using biometric data.

Benefits of fingerprints on ID cards

Already adopted by the EU as a security feature for passports, biometric data is the most secure way to verify the identity of a person and the authenticity of a travel document, according to International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) studies.

Fingerprints are good identifiers as they are stable whereas a person's appearance will change over time.

The European Commission said that more secure documents will facilitate bona fide EU citizens and their family members' right to move and reside freely across the Union.

Improving the security of documents will mean they are considered more reliable, and therefore, more readily accepted, it said.

The European Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA), an EU body that carried out a report into the use of biometric data in EU IT systems, told Euronews that it too considered biometrics to be the most reliable method to identify a person.

However, it also pointed out the "fundamental rights risk" that emerges if fingerprints are included in a central database.

Risks associated with biometric data

Although the FRA found that complaints about data stored in Schengen systems were rare, it said citizens were generally not well informed how to change or delete their data.

"The cumbersome nature of the processes, administrative hurdles, language barriers and lack of specialised lawyers also explains why few persons try to exercise these rights," the body said.

Biometrics are reliable and authorities have a high trust in a fingerprint, according to the FRA and although a false biometric match is "very rare" it can still happen.

To avoid such failures, the quality of fingerprints is important and factors such as age — which impacts on the reliability of a match — should be considered.

Data-entry errors are another risk, said the FRA, which reported around 50% of European border and visa officials interviewed for its report spoke of data entry mistakes in their IT systems.

They resulted from misspellings, lack of interpretation, or fingerprints being assigned to the wrong person.

How will this affect my ID card?

Fingerprinting in ID cards is currently optional in the bloc and some countries, like the UK, do not issue cards at all.

An estimated 80 million Europeans currently have non-machine readable ID cards without biometric identifiers.

The commission said the proposal would not force Member States to introduce ID cards. Nor is it suggesting the replacement of national ID cards with EU IDs, and other aspects of the document's design would still be decided upon by the government of each country.

However, if a member state issues ID cards that allow its citizens to cross EU external borders, as well as travel and reside anywhere in the EU, it will have to ensure that the ID cards comply with minimum security features set by the ICAO.