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France to use face biometrics for enrollment into national digital ID program

France to use face biometrics for enrollment into national digital ID program

The French Interior Ministry will deploy facial recognition for enrollment into its national digital identification program dubbed Alicem, making France the first European country to use face biometrics technology for a secure digital identity, writes Bloomberg.

While French president Emmanuel Macron is eager to set up the program in November, arguing it will deliver more productivity and state efficiency, CNIL, France’s data regulator, is concerned the program violates the European rule of consent guaranteed by EU’s GDPR. At the same time, a French privacy group is fighting the initiative in an administrative court.

“The government wants to funnel people to use Alicem and facial recognition,” said Martin Drago, a lawyer member of the privacy group La Quadrature du Net that filed the suit against the state. “We’re heading into mass usage of facial recognition. (There’s) little interest in the importance of consent and choice.”

Those challenging the program not only warn that it breaches privacy, but that it opens up a major security risk, because it will be installed at the “highest, state level.” Concerns are voiced that state security is not very robust after a hacker spent about an hour to hack a “secure” government messaging app. Other worry it will be used to track protesters.

“The government shouldn’t boast that its system is secure, but accept to be challenged,” said the hacker known Robert Baptiste. “They could open a bug bounty before starting, because it would be serious if flaws were discovered after people start using it, or worse if the app gets hacked during enrollment, when the facial recognition data is collected.”

France wants to follow in the footsteps of other countries that introduced biometric technology to create ID systems and authorize citizens to securely access taxes, bank information, social security, and utility bills.

In May, the government of Singapore announced plans to boost its ICT capabilities, including a National Digital Identity (NDI) platform, to ease digital interactions and meet the outcomes of its Digital Government Blueprint. The single digital identity for government and private sector use was part of an estimated S$2.5 billion to S$2.7 billion (US$1.8 billion to 1.95 billion) investment in ICT contract for full-year 2019 (April 2019 to March 2020), more than 80 percent of which will be open to small and medium enterprises.

The Interior Ministry claims its system will be nothing like the programs adopted in China and Singapore that are used for surveillance, and it will not integrate biometric data into the identity databases. After the enrollment process is finalized, the data is deleted, the institution claims.

Bloomberg looked into the smart phone app that communicates with the biometric passport, and that enables users to set up a legal digital ID through facial recognition. The enrollment process happens once and it involves a comparison between a selfie video taken by the app and the photo in the biometric passport. It is currently only available for Android users.

“The wide-spread use of an equivalent of a public DNA is a challenge for regulators,” said Patrick Van Eecke, a privacy and data specialist at DLA Piper in Brussels. “You can look at France’s use of facial recognition for digital identity in two ways: it goes too far in terms of privacy, or they’re using the most secure new technology. Are they a front-runner or are they overstepping the mark?”

As of November, the new EU Commission plans to establish a union-wide AI program.

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