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World: 'Could I Please See Your Bio ID?'

  • Roman Kupchinsky

Would biometric IDs help thwart terrorist attacks like the 7 July bombings in London? Is the era of the conventional passport ending? The current trend points to the biometric identification card as the world's future international identification (ID) card that would be used to enter foreign countries, to make financial transactions at money machines, and as an international driver's license. It could also possibly prevent a terrorist from being allowed to enter a subway or a soccer stadium.

French law requires that all citizens must prove their identity to police or administration officials upon request. They can do so by presenting a driver's license or a passport -- even one which is expired -- or call in a witness to vouch for their identity.

Beginning in 2006 all French citizens will begin receiving bio passports that will carry a microchip containing a digitized photo and fingerprints. In 2007, they will be issued internal ID cards will slowly be replaced with similar features built into a new credit card-like ID.
It is hoped that bio IDs will be difficult to forge, but experience has shown that anything electronic is vulnerable to attack and deception, therefore overlapping layers of protection will remain essential components of a functional security perimeter for years to come.


The bio identification card, according to some of its proponents, could be the answer to the needs of the security officials who are in the unenviable position of trying to protect millions of people each day from a terrorist attack.

The bio ID is basically a "smart card" but, instead of a magnetic strip, has an imbedded microchip with up to 8 kilobytes of RAM, 346 kilobytes of ROM, 256 kilobytes of programmable ROM, and a 16-bit microprocessor.

According to the IDG News Service of 12 April, the new French ID card will contain several kinds of information that are isolated into distinct blocks. The credit card-sized ID will have the bearer's names, date of birth, and address printed on it. The signature, photograph, and fingerprints will be encrypted and accessible only to officials. Another block will authenticate the card as genuine but contain no further information.

The IDG News Service added: "The new [French] identity card will also hold a digital signature for signing official documents such as tax declarations or private correspondence, and even a private storage space in which cardholders can store other information of their own choosing."

The person carrying such an ID would be asked to insert the card into a "reader" which would then link up to a central database, such as the Schengen Information System (SIS) II, to see if there is any record of the person having an Interpol arrest warrant against him/her or if the person has had contacts with known terrorists. Perhaps even show any domestic transgressions -- something as minor as an unpaid traffic ticket. If the holder of the ID is "clean" he/she could then proceed.

This, in theory, would make France more secure and the new ID would create a biometric Maginot Line and serve as a kind of high-tech Sherlock Holmes all rolled into one.

All For One?

The above model is for French citizens, although the bio ID card is being designed to one day become universal and could also be used as national health insurance cards as well as for a variety of other purposes.

Such a system, its proponents claim, would not only vastly simplify the current maze of procedures and requirements needed to move around, but could be a powerful tool in the hands of law enforcement and counterterrorism organizations.

According to the "Asia Times" of 2 October 2004, computer chip-embedded ID cards that store and transact data are big business. "Unit shipments were over 2 billion cards in 2003 and the Asia-Pacific region alone accounted for about 34 percent of the volume," the "Asia Times" reported, adding that Malaysia, Hong Kong, Taiwan, India, and South Korea all are aiming to introduce some form of smart card IDs.

Drawbacks

One of the current major drawbacks of the bio ID systems is that not all members of the European Union, not to mention the rest of the world, have agreed to issue national bio ID cards to their citizens. Germans are issued a "Personalausweis" at the age of 16 which they are required to have but don't have to have on them.

The German parliament's Office of Technology Assessment issued a report on 9 April 2004 on the possible introduction of bio ID cards in Germany. "At this stage," the report warns, "introducing biometric identifiers in ID cards and passports would be like performing a 'gigantic laboratory test.' A number of big question marks remain, regarding the technology to be selected, the concrete system requirements, the issuance and distribution logistics and, perhaps more importantly, the social acceptance of biometrics" (see report at http://europa.eu.int/idabc/en/document/2406/336).

And there are many others who view bio ID cards as violating civil liberties such a right to privacy. Privacy International, an NGO dedicated to protecting individual privacy, has written on its website (http://www.privacyinternational.org) that: "While it is true that cards containing non-sensitive data are less likely to be used against the individual, cards are often alleged to be the vehicle for discriminatory practices. Police who are given powers to demand IDs invariably have consequent powers to detain people who do not have the card, or who cannot prove their identity. Even in such advanced countries as Germany, the power to hold such people for up to 24 hours is enshrined in law. The question of who is targeted for ID checks is left largely to the discretion of police."

The United Kingdom -- like the United States -- does not have a national ID card and parliament only recently passed an act requiring one to be instituted. According to the "The Guardian" of 27 July 2005, anyone who fails to keep an appointment to register for the new national ID card will incur a fine of £2,500 ($4,450).

In December 2004, the EU adopted a measure saying that all EU passports should have fingerprints, as was required by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a UN body which in 2003 agreed on an initial bio standard for passports, including a digital photograph and digital fingerprints.

The 188 contracting states of the ICAO agreed to begin issuing ICAO standard machine readable passports no later than 10 April 2010, according to the organization's website at http://www.icao.org/

The London bombings on 7 July perhaps gave the EU a necessary push to speed matters up regarding the bio IDs. On 11 July, the president of the EU circulated a document titled "Minimum common standards for national identity cards," which called for the use of biometrics. It included a provision which would protect data stored on identity cards but insure that it could be read by officials in other EU member states.

The common European bio passport/ID card has met with practical problems -- not all member states are yet capable of producing them and most would have to purchase the costly compatible scanners to read the passports. Despite these drawbacks, the EU common bio passport and ID card is slowly taking shape.

In April, a consortium of companies led by Hewlett-Packard announced the signing of a contract with the European Commission to develop a "high-quality technology model" for the next generation of the SIS II and the Visa Information System (VIS). The new system is intended to be a far more pervasive one with the VIS system becoming biometric. SIS II is intended to be fully functional in 2007.

Coupled with future bio ID cards, the SIS II could significantly upgrade the Schengen zone's security system.

More Drawbacks

The London subway bombings showed security officials that biometrics will not provide a foolproof way of stopping terrorists. The four London bombers who died in the act were crystal clean -- they had no police records and had they had bio ID cards, they would most likely have passed any card inspection. In order to stop them, their backpacks would still need to have been checked, at which time they might or might not have been tempted to detonate their bombs.

For the system to function properly, a number of overlapping security measures must be in place -- physical checks of the baggage coupled with reasonably efficient explosive-sniffing devices along with better intelligence that can be fed into a central database that is made available to the person on the spot who is checking the bio ID.

The bio ID system is only as good as the information that is fed into it. If the flow of information stops or is somehow manipulated, it might disable the system. It is hoped that bio IDs will be difficult to forge, but experience has shown that anything electronic is vulnerable to attack and deception, therefore overlapping layers of protection will remain essential components of a functional security perimeter for years to come.
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