Europe’s #biometrics gap

| June 29, 2017 | 0 Comments

Against the backdrop of recent terrorist attacks in the UK, the number one issue for the heads of state at the European Council summit in Brussels last week was internal security and combatting terrorism. In its conclusions, the Council dutifully vowed to “fight the spread of radicalization online” and to improve the exchange of information as well as the implementation of an entry/exit system. The tech industry was also called on to help combat terrorism in cyberspace by dealing with the hard-to-intercept communication channels that terrorists use to plan their attacks.

While these conclusions are a positive sign that European leaders recognize the problems, they do not account for how new technologies are already used to prevent terrorists from wreaking havoc across the EU. Technological advances are critical to ending shortfalls in monitoring and data sharing, and one key piece of technology is largely going unused in Europe: biometrics.

Biometric technology allows individuals to be identified by distinguishing biological traits unique to them, such as fingerprints, hand geometry, retina and iris patterns, as well as DNA. Biometrics have already been instrumental in preventing attacks worldwide: an American study published in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks identified how biometrics in travel documents can be used to identify known or suspected terrorists, all while improving measures against identity theft. In 2011, the US used both DNA testing and the CIA’s facial recognition technology to identify the remains of Osama Bin Laden after raiding his Pakistani hideout.

Biometrics were also put to work on-the-ground by US forces in Iraq, who used a ‘biometrics jumpkit to compare detainee fingerprints with a database of dangerous individuals held by the US Army. Over two years, soldiers made around 28,000 biometric submissions, resulting in 1,722 positive matches for individuals linked to IEDs. According to Konrad Trautman, director of intelligence at the US Special Operations Command, this greatly reduced the capacity for bomb-making in Iraq. And in Australia, 20 known or suspected terrorists were thwarted when they applied for visas and a new biometric data system matched them against the US watch-list.

Europe, though, is only just catching up to the idea. This is unacceptable, since the production and implementation of biometric technology, such as facial recognition, have fallen to the same price level as any other security system, while offering better security at the same time. The biometrics industry is slated to grow massively in the coming years as the technology continues to improve and becomes cheaper, meaning the EU needs to take advantage of technological developments now in order to improve the protection and safety of its citizens in the future.

However, this requires the EU to step up and be serious about making effective use of this technology, not least because the current lacklustre approach has already cost lives. A leaked EU report examining terror attacks in Berlin, Paris and Brussels identified gaping holes in the ability of security services to monitor the movement of terror suspects across Europe, noting that the Schengen Border Code “did not allow for the systematic consultation” of national and international databases that might alert officials to potentially suspicious individuals.

The result is that these individuals are slipping through the net and murdering European citizens. For example, UK secretary of state Damien Green (who once served as police minister) noted that the information-sharing system should have been enough to stop one of the London Bridge attackers gaining entry to the UK. So why didn’t it?

In Germany, the Tunisian perpetrator of the attack on a Berlin Christmas market that killed 12 people had been flagged by police weeks before. Despite significant drug dealing and links to a radical preacher aligned with Islamic State, he could not be deported because he lacked a passport and Tunisia disputed that he was one of their citizens. While this bureaucratic wrangling took place, he slipped out of view only to resurface at the wheel of a hijacked lorry.

The way Europe lags behind in biometric technology and data processing becomes all the more baffling when you consider the high standards the EU demands of other countries. For example, when Peru wanted access to the Schengen area, it hired a consortium led by France’s Imprimerie Nationale to design a new biometric passport. The document was issued in a couple of months from the moment the program was launched and is among the cheapest in Latin America. Once Peru had ordered a sufficient number of these passports, the EU was able to exempt Peruvians from visa requirements within the Schengen zone.

That and other agreements serve as proof that Europe clearly recognises the value of biometrics, but the EU is still failing to deploy it correctly within its own jurisdiction. Gilles de Kerchove, the EU’s counter-terrorism coordinator, has noted that the “systematic use of biometrics” and “batch comparison” of databases is required in order to boost security in the Schengen area. Databases like Europol, Interpol, the Schengen Information System, and Eurodac also need to be able to be queried using “biometrical data and especially facial imaging”.

Fortunately, European states are becoming slightly more systematic about using these technologies. Germany, for example, has indicated that it is considering using facial recognition software at train stations to identify potential terrorists. The Council conclusion offers hope that EU members will finally find the impetus to move forward constructively and start using the solutions that have been at its disposal for some time.

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Category: A Frontpage, Crime, Data, Mass surveillance, Terrorism

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