The European Union’s recent launch of separate passports for children in the Schengen borderless states, besides the requirement of two fingerprints of persons above 12 years, marks a major change in the incorporation of biometric data to protect personal identities world over. The latest drive to harmonise the rules on the deployment of biometric features in the bloc would further facilitate visa-free travel to the United States for citizens from EU countries that are currently part of such an arrangement. Second generation biometric passports contain a microchip wherein personal data are embedded, allowing remote access and a cryptographic means to prevent unauthorised use. Since 2006, digital facial images (given their greater social acceptability) are embedded in the microchip on passports and travel documents of the EU with a validity of over 12 months. In addition, the European Parliament recently gave an overwhelming endorsement to the controversial proposal to include two fingerprints, besides iris scans, as a backup to fine-tune data validity.
The introduction of separate passports for children is expected to strengthen the global combat against child trafficking. Further, the requirement to include the names of parents in the documents of minors and to obtain authorisation when the latter are accompanied by a third party are intended to afford additional protection. Parliament has however decided to exempt persons below 12 years from the requirement to give fingerprints considering that they would continue to vary until adolescence. Attempts to strengthen cross-border security have come under intense scrutiny from civil liberties groups that question the authenticity of biometric information for personal identification, as well as potentially adverse implications for individual privacy. Besides, some quarters in the civil aviation sector have also cautioned — in the wake of access to more technical information — against the likely neglect of important human cues traditionally used to intercept suspects at ports of entry. Balancing the risks to privacy and the imperative of using personal information to curb identity fraud — since the September 11, 2001, terror attacks — is in itself a formidable challenge. But settling the choice of biometric data among different alternatives is necessary in the interest of promoting uniform standards across the globe and to ensure inter-operability of measures. India’s endeavours to extend electronic passports beyond the diplomatic corps should draw upon experience elsewhere.