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Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Germans get biometric passports

The new passport looks much like the old one, but airport control devices can detect a minute electronic tag concealed inside the cover.

German Interior Minister Otto Schily described the new e-passport as "a real security bonus".

He said the new technology would make forgery "impossible - or at least more difficult". Critics say that is not good enough.

The new biometric passport contains a paper-thin computer chip. Stored on this chip is a scan of the holder's face.

After 2007 the chip will also include fingerprint scans and iris scans could follow later.

When passengers have their passports checked at the airport, a device will scan their face whilst the immigration officer swipes the passport past another control device to check whether the information matches.

Safety concerns

But security tests carried out on the new e-passport have left many questions unanswered, says the data protection commissioner, Peter Schaar. He wanted more transparent testing before the passports were introduced.

"The authorities gave us virtually no information about the results of the security testing that was done," he says. "We haven't been able to properly assess how secure the new passport will be."

Mr Schaar's main concern is unauthorised access to the confidential biometric data. He wants to see more safeguards.

The German government has ruled out a centralised database of the confidential information. "But who says this won't happen abroad?" he says. "We need an EU-wide ruling to prevent storage of this data. This has all happened too fast."

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