The BigBrotherAwards highlight individual cases – but often it is easy to see common phenomena or themes. The jury has been asking itself which themes are “on the rise” currently. Here is one where we fear exactly that to be happening:
A worrying trend is the increase in registration of biometric data, by public as well as private institutions.
In May 2007, the Bundestag (the Lower House in Germany’s federal parliament) passed an amendment to the passport law. This stated that from 1 November 2007, fingerprints would be stored in electronic passports as a second biometric feature besides facial images. Storing fingerprints is fraught with several risks. For example, questions of data security, such as the possibility of unauthorised reading of the RFID chip, are as yet unresolved. Third countries could easily set up personal biometrics databases of their visitors in this way. Such collections would then be completely removed from any control or influence of German institutions.
Users of so-called “automatic video rentals” are also required to supply biometric data. Customers wanting to use the service of renting DVDs outside regular opening hours must give their fingerprint, in order to uphold age limits. The law requires that age limits must be enforced by “technical means of protection” if there is no staff on site. However, the procedures introduced for that purpose would do well to serve not just the protection of minors but of data as well. Fingerprints are sensitive data, and their use for identification should not be common but an exception – such as in police investigations.
The authorities look towards biometrics not only on the federal level. The City Council of Offenburg has resolved to allow fingerprints for payment systems in the city’s school refectories. In 2001 we already awarded the Hans Ehrenberg school in Bielefeld for their refectory card. What is particularly perfidious about the Offenburg scheme is that the 5,000 pupils are enticed by discounts to take part.
Of no practical use whatsoever to participants is the “doppelganger event” of North Rhine-Westphalia’s public broadcaster, WDR – run by their “youth” radio channel 1LIVE in cooperation with Mobile Vision Technologies, a face recognition software company. Listeners are told to send in a photo showing their faces to 1LIVE, where they will be matched with pictures of 1LIVE presenters and celebrities. These photos are then published on the 1LIVE website without anonymisation. The cooperation with Mobile Vision Technologies – the only actual benefactor of the event – is concealed or at least not made obvious to the uninitiated. What this event mainly does is to desensitise young people to the registration of biometric data, carelessly and “just for fun”.
The BigBrotherAwards jury criticise this trend of making people get used to supplying their biometric data to institutions beyond their control. The question of how these sensitive data are protected is often left unanswered.