Mobile Biometric ID Devices and the “Best of All Possible Walls”
When I was in Athens last summer, headlines announced that, in order to identify “undocumented migrants” more quickly, the Hellenic police would be given hand-held fingerprint and facial scanners that promise to check people’s biometrics against 20 national and international databases. The outrage at this was divided: Some activists worried about data protection and racist policing, others argued for “no borders.” One campaigner told me that, once in use, “rights will be violated and then we can bring cases”. (He was pessimistic about whether cases could get the gadgets banned. Rather there would be more safeguards, which the police could end up ignoring.) Now, seven months later, the Greek privacy authority is still reviewing “lawfulness”. But the scanners have been paid for (€2.2m – thanks to the EU). And so my acquaintance stays skeptical: “They usually use what they pay for.”
The European Commission wants police across the EU to start using handheld biometric ID devices so that they can automatically search the “Central Identity Repository” database, which is currently being set up to store records of asylum seekers, refugees and visitors from outside Europe. In 2011, the Dutch Minister of Justice, Ivo Opstelten, announced a police “experiment” in Rotterdam with mobile fingerprint scanning devices for “more intensive checks” on “illegal aliens”. (Local politicians called it a “witch hunt against foreigners.”.)
“Someone working within the police told me the plan was never pulled off, not least because it was technically impossible to do that at the time,” says Rejo Zenger, from the privacy rights group Bits of Freedom. In 2013, Opstelten informed fellow ministers that several pilots had been carried out as part of a “mobile policing” project to identify “suspects” on the streets and automatically search for any details stored about them in national registers (which in 2013 meant using blackberry smartphones.) Two years later, Opstelten resigned over a shady deal with a famous drug trafficker. Since then, the Dutch mobile policing MEOS (Mobile and More Effective on the Street) system has served as a model for police forces in Hamburg, Sweden and Denmark. In 2016, the then MEOS coordinator Edwin Delwel gave a presentation on how to “set up and gain support” for “mobile policing solutions” at an European Commission funded get-together for police and border managers called “the European Network of Law Enforcement Technology Services”. Today, Delwel is the group’s chairman.
An older, more analogue example of how repressive tools can become entrenched in the EU’s asylum system are the highly unscientific X-ray age tests that authorities use to decide who is entitled to the legal rights of under-18s and who is not. At first, countries like Greece used X-rays informally. In 2013, the EU introduced a bunch of safeguards. These are often ignored in practice. Up to this day, one macabre joke made in the prison-like refugee camps on the Aegean Islands is that New Year’s Day is actually “the world’s biggest birthday party” because so many teens have official papers drafted by border officials and validated by doctors (who usually deal with broken bones) that assign them a birth date like 1.01.2001 or 1.01.2000 – This documented date of birth that is older than their real age and thus excludes them from social services and coerces them into agreeing to go through their asylum procedure as adults (without legal aid or a guardian). Which means that if their case is rejected, the Greek state can deport them under EU law.
Much of this reminds me of Eyal Weizman’s analysis of how human rights lawyers can end up “building the best of all possible walls.” At what point is it too late to turn the tide on this new system of “smart policing”? As usual, please send thoughts, tips and criticisms!