People tend to think that digital copies of our biological features, stored in a government-run database, are problems of a dystopian future. But governments around the world are already using such technologies. Severalcountries are collecting massive amounts of biometric data for their national identity and passport schemes—a development that raises significant civil liberties and privacy concerns. Biometric identifiers are inherently sensitive data. As European privacy watchdogs have said, biometrics changes irrevocably the relationship between body and identity, because they make the characteristics of the human body “machine-readable” and subject to further use. This is why such identification schemes become particularly dangerous when used with unreliable biometric technologies that can misidentify individuals.

Regulators in several jurisdictions continue to romanticize the security and accuracy of face, fingerprint, and iris automatic recognition biometric technologies. But the existence of a significant amount of falsified biometric identification documents raisesquestions as to whether these technologies are toounreliable to prevent fraud, thus providing individuals and governments with a false sense of security.

Automatic Face Recognition in Border Control

Biometric data of individuals’ faces has been used since 2007 at various European border checks. Eleven airports in the UnitedKingdom now have e-passport gates that scan EU travelers’ faces and compare them to measurementsoftheirfacialfeatures (i.e. biometrics), stored on a chip in their biometric passports. Although error rates of state-of-the-art facial recognition technologies have been reduced over the past 20 years, these technologies still cannot identify individuals with complete accuracy. In an incidentin 2011, the Manchester e-passport gates let through a couple that had mixed up their passports. The UK Border Agency subsequently disabled the Manchester gates and launched an investigation.

Similarepassportgates have been introduced in Australia and New Zealand. During the early stages of testing in Australia, the technology showed a six to eight percent error rate. Moreover, this technology also misidentified two men who exchanged passports. Nevertheless, the government refused to disclose the final error rates, citing security concerns.

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