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Biometric Privacy Trade-off Exposed in Missing Jet's Passports

The pages of a new biometric passport are stitched together at a printing plant in Belgrade

Photograph by Oliver Bunic/Bloomberg

The pages of a new biometric passport are stitched together at a printing plant in Belgrade

Since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, governments have presented citizens with a trade-off they couldn’t refuse: Surrender your data and dignity in exchange for some security. The arrangement has ranged from phone surveillance to airport shoe removal. And at every turn, privacy advocates have raised the alarm that individuals are getting the raw end of the deal.

Now the disappearance of a Malaysian airliner over the South China Sea is giving privacy defenders an I-told-you-so moment. Two passengers used stolen European passports, at least one of which was equipped with biometric features, which can include electronically stored fingerprints and facial images, Bloomberg News reported. When immigration officials access the data, they can determine if travelers really are who they purport to be.

In the case of the vanished jet, full use of those capabilities could have helped flag the stolen passports. It’s not yet clear if airport security looked at the biometric data, but Interpol said no checks for those two identities had been made against its database of stolen passports. (Any connection between the passports and the plane’s disappearance is still under investigation.)

Gus Hosein, executive director of Privacy International in London, says the incident shows how the push for enhanced passport data hasn’t paid off. “It’s not just that the trade-off wasn’t worth it—the proponents of this policy were short-sighted and wanted to play with new technologies while building national biometric databases,” says Hosein, whose group advocates against government intrusions into private life, including the broadening use of biometrics such as iris scans and other measurements of peoples’ features.

Malaysian immigration officers check foreign passports with biometric features by swiping outbound travelers’ documents to see the details contained in them, an immigration official at Kuala Lumpur International Airport told Bloomberg News. When the system isn’t working, slows down, or freezes, officers enter passport details manually, the official said.

For governments around the world, the biometric systems are a work in progress. The U.S. requires visitors from countries such as France or Germany who use its visa waiver program to have electronic passports if they were issued on or after Oct. 26, 2006. Those biometric passports contain a chip with a digital photograph of the holder, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. “Successful testing in the United States and overseas has been an important step forward in a larger, comprehensive effort to enhance security and facilitate legitimate travel and trade through international cooperation,” the department says on its website.

Hosein at Privacy International has doubts. “Until we have more transparency over how effective biometric passports actually are, or probably are not,” he says, “we can only conclude it was a premature policy established at a time when we were looking for technological solutions to complex problems.”

Silver is a reporter for Bloomberg News in Rome, and author of The Lost Chalice: The Real-Life Chase for One of the World's Rarest Masterpieces (HarperCollins). Follow him on Twitter @vtsilver.

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