The EU may introduce a national biometric ID card. Will the US follow suit?

Earlier this month, the EU Council Presidency and European Parliament reached an informal agreement to add biometrics to national identity cards. Under the proposal, new EU ID cards will digitally store two fingerprint images and a facial image on a contactless chip. The proposal is now with the EU ambassadors for confirmation.

The European Commission recently estimated there are 80 million Europeans with ID cards that cannot be read by machines and do not include biometric images. The EU wants to tighten security for ID cards to reduce identity fraud and criminal activity, and biometrics could help with that.

“Security throughout the EU can only be achieved by ensuring security in each member state,” said Romanian Minister of Internal Affairs Carmen Daniela Dan, according to Europost. “The new rules on security standards for ID documents will allow us to more easily detect document fraud and identity theft, making it harder for terrorists and criminals to act, while facilitating free movement of genuine travelers.”

Privacy concerns accompany talk of biometric national ID cards

Given the growing acceptance of national ID cards that include biometrics, it will be interesting to see if changes in the EU move the U.S. any closer to a national ID card. There’s been talk of a biometric-infused national ID card in the U.S. for years, and especially after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. In 2005, the REAL ID act set standards for federally compliant identity cards (as of Oct. 1, 2020 you won’t be able to board a plane or enter a federal facility if your only ID is a driver’s license or other state-issued card that is non-compliant). But REAL ID isn’t connected with a national database and doesn’t definitively establish that someone is a U.S. citizen. A national ID card that includes a biometric component could help achieve that goal, but there’s been strong opposition to establishing a U.S. national ID card. Human rights lawyers, activists, security professionals, IT experts and politicians said that a national ID card  threatens civil liberties (many of the concerns are focused on the databases underlying the identity cards rather than the cards themselves.)

Similar concerns are being raised in the EU. Jan Philipp Albrecht, a member of European Parliament from Germany’s Green Party, called the new EU proposal a violation of civil rights and claims it would not prevent future terrorist attacks. “Even fingerprints can be forged and terrorist assassins and their henchmen regularly obtain weapons and financial means without presenting an identity card,” he told Reuters.

Those who oppose the EU proposal still have time to state their case. According to Statewatch, because the proposal infringes on fundamental rights, legislators must prove that the infringements “are necessary and genuinely meet objectives of general interest recognized by the Union or the need to protect the rights and freedoms of others.”

Some EU members already adding biometrics to ID cards

No matter what the EU does, it’s fairly certain that establishing a national ID card in the U.S., whether that card includes biometrics or not, would involve a fierce battle, so it’s unlikely we’ll see any major changes in the near future. But it is good to see that the EU is thinking about biometrics for stronger identity control if it does move forward with the new ID cards. In fact, several EU countries have independently added a biometric component to their individual ID cards. For example, Spain’s new ID cards include fingerprints, and German citizens can choose whether to include fingerprint data on their ID cards. Finally, Greece was recently reported to be preparing a tender for biometric ID cards.

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