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Far-right pols in Estonia block biometric database with dubious claims

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How controversial can government databases of citizen biometric data get? There is no upper limit at the moment.

In Estonia, politicians have proposed gathering multiple existing national biometric databases (namely, law enforcement and border control) into a central store for an automated biometric identification system (ABIS), according to the local ERR news service.

The parliament in 2012 gave the government the right to gather defined categories of data for use in criminal investigations. It did not, however, foresee the need to collate the data, so no provision was made to do so.

Centralization is an effort to make accessing, securing and managing the database efficient. Funds were first allocated for the project in 2017.

Although ABIS opponents have said the government will store DNA and iris biometrics data, no new information would be gathered as part of the proposed legislation, according to ERR. And biometric data can only be introduced in court proceeding involving serious crimes.

The nation’s Interior minister has said the data will not be sold, and biometric data will be kept separate from biographical information in the ABIS.

Still, biometric databases held by governments call for rational skepticism. Calls for transparent and rigorously followed use and disclosure rules are hard to argue.

But leaders of the far-right Conservative People’s Party of Estonia, known locally as EKRE, has promised to use every procedural tactic to prevent any bill before the parliament — from being voted on until the ABIS legislation is killed.

Even though the information in question has been collected openly for years, an EKRE member of parliament and former IT minister, Kert Kingo, has cast doubt on the centralization, saying she does not know where the data comes from or who can access it.

Estonia reportedly already exchanges the biometric information with 19 European nations, looking for cross-border criminals.

In an outburst in keeping with the tenor of EKRE discourse, Kingo implied the database could somehow impose “still greater censorship,” ERR has reported.

Not to be outdone, EKRE Chairman Martin Helme has called the content of the ABIS database “sinister.”

Estonian politicians supporting the measure have pointed out that Helme signed off on the same legislation when he briefly held the Interior minister post last year. When he assumed the post, Helme flashed the three-finger white-power sign.

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