Proposed German law could pave way for biometric IDs

BERLIN -- Germans could be the first people to carry passports and identity cards with encrypted biometric data intended to enable computerized identification and hinder fraud. The new technology is included in a package of antiterrorism measures agreed on today by the government's Cabinet. Similar measures are also under consideration in other European countries.

The bill, proposed in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, still must be approved by the Bundestag, or Parliament.

Ordinary IDs, which carry only the photograph and the signature of the bearer, are too easily misused, the Interior Ministry said, but digitally encrypted biometric data will enable the "absolutely certain" establishment of identity.

Details of the technology that might be used weren't available, officials said.

"Various different measures are being considered -- whether a fingerprint scan or a face scan; it's up to the Bundestag to decide which ones are most efficient," said Gabi Holtrup, a spokeswoman for the Interior Ministry.

German human rights activists sharply denounced the proposed security measures, which also include increased cooperation between secret services and police and expanded surveillance of electronic communication.

In a joint statement yesterday, more than 20 human rights and privacy groups, including the hackers' organization Chaos Computer Club, took aim at the package.

"Not one of the measures proposed in the bill would serve to hinder strikes like the New York attacks. Nonetheless, guaranteed basic rights and freedoms of both German and non-German citizens will be curtailed without justification by the planned measures," the activists wrote.

The bill carries a provision calling for the new security measures to be reviewed after five years, but that didn't reassure opponents.

"It must not be forgotten that the newly created structures will surely have a great interest in demonstrating 'successes,' " the human rights groups wrote. "Experience shows that surveillance measures, once introduced, are only repealed in exceptional cases."

Related security measures are being discussed at the European Union (EU), but "that process takes a lot longer," Holtrup said.

Most EU countries, with the exception of the U.K., issue national ID cards to their citizens. Proposals to introduce a national ID in the U.K. and the U.S., including an offer by Oracle Corp. Chairman Larry Ellison to donate the software to create an identity database, have touched off a heated debate (see story).

Italy has begun issuing electronic ID cards to its citizens, following a similar program in Finland. The Italian cards feature microprocessors and optical memory bands and carry identity details as well as health and tax information intended to allow citizens to interact with government services electronically.

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