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EAB talk probes balance between border biometrics benefits and rights risks

EAB talk probes balance between border biometrics benefits and rights risks

Achieving a balance between the benefits of biometrics in border processes and the risk that they may cause harm to fundamental rights will require gathering more data about the problems biometrics collection is meant to address, as well as detailed policy considerations, attendees heard in the European Association for Biometrics’ (EAB’s) virtual lunch talk this week.

Bianca-Ioana Marcu of Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) gave a presentation on ‘Biometrics, Facial Recognition and the Fundamental Rights of Migrants,’ focussing on the EU migration management context, and considering non-technical impacts.

Marcu noted a tangle of databases that could be involved in EU migration processes, but focussed on the EURODAC database.

Biometrics have been adopted in immigration systems to apply efficiency, trust and reliability to the large numbers of people moving between countries, Marcu points out. Pressures on EU external borders, both from migration volumes and terrorism concerns, have resulted in a move towards “the establishment of a genuine security union,” she says, facilitated by EU-wide information systems.

Migration lawyers have suggested the digitization of borders in techno-solutionism, and a 2016 proposal to amend EURODAC was not agreed to, but another amendment proposal was published in 2020. Both proposals emphasize the role of biometrics in securing Europe’s borders, Marcu observes. The latter proposal would lower the age of biometric data collection from 14 to 6, which has been identified as a potential problem.

Migration, asylum, crime, law enforcement and internal security policy goals are converging in the system, Marcu says, warning that the intended broad interoperability could raise new risks, including the treatment of migrants and migration “as a priori threats.”

The vulnerability of migrants to discrimination, loss of autonomy and other risks can be exacerbated by the use of digital systems in the context of a dramatic power imbalance, Marcu cautions.

Marcu’s research has examined the collection of biometric from accompanied and unaccompanied minors, and questions around whether it meets the proportionality and necessity criteria which must be met under EU law, particularly where children’s facial recognition data is concerned. The suggestion in the proposal to carry out biometrics collection in a child-friendly way is not accompanied by specific guidance, despite the ongoing discussion about what constitutes appropriate practices with adults.

The rationale for taking facial images from children into the EURODAC system is to reunite lost or abducted children with their families.

No fundamental rights or data protection impact assessment was conducted on the proposal, as noted by the European Data Protection Supervisor.

Marcu points out the questionable reliability of biometrics with children, particularly in the field, and proceeded to review the concerns EU legislators have expressed with public facial recognition and mission-creep by surveillance in general, and noted well-reported worries such as those around social sorting, bias, and chilling effects on fundamental rights.

GDPR and data subject rights could be used to push back on the expansion of EURODAC. She argues that more attention needs to be paid to operationalizing key data protection principles, which can also help protect other rights.

Marcu did not suggest many answers to how the balance between using biometric technology and protecting human rights can be achieved, but raised and elaborated on enough to likely keep policy-makers and think-tanks busy in debate long past the implementation deadlines currently under discussion.

The next EAB virtual lunch talk will be held on November 2, and address what the EU AI Regulation means for the biometrics community.

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