Monday, 29 March 2004

International privacy coalition calls for halt to ICAO biometric/RFID passport plans

In An Open Letter to the ICAO released today by Privacy International, 34 privacy and civil liberties organizations from around the world (with more still joining as endorsers) are calling on the International Civil Aviation Organization not to adopt the proposals currently before ICAO for passport and travel document standards to include biometric information and remotely-readable radio-frequency identification (RFID) chips.

As discussed in a background paper from Privacy International accompanying the joint letter to ICAO, and as previously discussed in my blog, ICAO's Facilitation Division has been meeting last week and this week in Cairo, Egypt to consider, inter alia, proposals to require the inclusion in passports and travel documents of remotely-readable RFID chips and digitally encoded biometric information, and for the standardization and sharing with governments of personal information contained in airline reservations.

These proposals, which are already close to adoption, have enormous privacy and civil liberties implications which ICAO has not addressed. So far as I know, no privacy or civil liberties organizations have been consulted by the relevant ICAO working group, or are in attendance at the Cairo meetings.

In combination, the proposals now before ICAO would convert existing commercial airline reservation systems, and individual countries' border control systems into an integrated "International Infrastructure for Surveillance of Movement" which would lead both to global biometric (facial photo and/or iris scan and/or fingerprint) databases and the ability for governments and commercial entities secretly (due to the potential for remote reading of RFID chips) to construct and access lifetime biographic and biometric travel histories.

ICAO is the source of current passport optical character recognition (OCR) standards. Because the law in the USA already requires passports used for visa-free travel to the USA to comply with whatever standard is adopted by ICAO, ICAO (a "technical" body with no formal procedure for public input) has in effect been delegated authority to legislate USA and global legal requirements for passports.

Today's open letter to ICAO is signed by Privacy International, the American Civil Liberties Union, and other leading digital privacy and civil liberties groups in the USA, Canada, Europe, Australia, and Korea.

Specifically, the undersigned call on the ICAO to:

  • Follow through on earlier promises to review privacy implications of biometrics and trans-border personal information transfers;
  • Release clear and binding privacy requirements that will reduce the risks of illegal collection, use,
    retention, and transfers of this information;
  • Uphold national data protection laws or cultural practices, as previously promised by the ICAO;
  • Prevent, by design or biometric selection, the development of biometric databases;
  • Refrain from adopting RFID or biometric standards until their privacy and surveillance implications -- and the possibility of alternatives with less potential for privacy invasion or other abuse by surveillance agencies -- can be more fully evaluated.

We hope that the choices of biometrics have been driven primarily by logistical and commercial concerns, and were not intended to facilitate the conversion of travel systems into a global infrastructure of surveillance. But we are deeply concerned that this may become their unintended consequence.

The joint statement on RFID and biometric passports, travel document, and databases is the second in a series entitled, "Towards an International Infrastructure for Surveillance of Movement". The first paper in the series, Transferring Privacy, focused on international transfers of airline reservations, particularly between the European Union and the USA.

[Addendum, 30 March 2004: More from the ACLU statement as one of the original co-signers of the joint letter to ICAO:

"The right to movement is recognized as a fundamental right around the world, and any steps that could restrict that right must be taken with the utmost care and deliberation," [Barry] Steinhardt [Director of the ACLU's Technology and Liberty Program] added. "We have not seen that kind of public discussion about these measures."

The ACLU also suggested that some of these measures might be part of an effort by member nations to enact a surveillance regime by working through international bodies that would never win political approval if it were to be directly proposed.

"We call that 'policy laundering,'" Steinhardt said. "The U.S. government knows that the American people will never go for a national I.D. card or a national database of every American?s fingerprints and photographs, but this proposal, if approved, will allow the United States to claim that large steps toward those policies are 'necessary to comply with international standards.'"

Additional signatories are copntinuing to endorse the letter, but there's been no immediate indication as to whether any attention is being paid to it at the Cairo meeting of ICAO.]

Link | Posted by Edward on Monday, 29 March 2004, 16:06 ( 4:06 PM) | TrackBack (2)
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