Thursday, 29 December 2005

The Big Brother Award 2005: Lifetime Achievement Category

The Big Brother Award 2005 in the "Lifetime Achievement" category goes to
the (former) Federal Minister of the Interior, Otto Schily
(Social-Democratic Party, SPD).

Otto Schily has this year received the most nominations by far - just like he did in 2001, when he won the Big Brother Award in the "Politics" category for his "Otto catalogue" (a pun referring to the well-known catalogue of Germany's biggest mail order company, as well as a package of security laws introduced by Schily). Within the jury there was wide agreement that this year Schily, as his political career is probably coming to an end, has truly earned the Lifetime award for his "merits" of many years. Still, we are much aware that by honouring him with this negative award we can hardly do justice to a personality as colourful as Otto Schily, or to his complete life effort. We regret that of the wealth of his impressive projects and initiatives, we can venerate only a selection today.
Otto Schily receives the Lifetime Big Brother Award of 2005

for the hasty introduction of biometric e-passports, with immature technology and without parliamentary authorisation;
for his "services" to the extension of European surveillance structures, at the cost of civil rights and liberties;
for his untiring endeavours to undermine data protection and informational self-determination, under the pretence of advancing security and fighting terrorism - see his anti-terror laws or "Otto catalogues" (a pun explained in the first paragraph above);
for his essential contributions to the "Major Eavesdropping Attack" (Großer Lauschangriff, the German name for audio surveillance being used on private homes in the course of state investigations), and
for his assaults on the independence of the Federal Data Protection Commissioner.
Among our laureate's major obsessions is the registration of digitalised biometric features in identity documents. As early as 1 Nov 2005, in other words, in a few days, the Federal Republic of Germany will become the first EU country to include such data in their passports. A contact-less RFID chip that can be read through radio transmissions will store personal details as well as a facial scan, and two digital fingerprints will be added in March 2007. Storing more features such as an iris scan or a genetic fingerprint is possible. The next step will be the introduction of a biometric ID card. (It is a legal requirement to carry one's ID card in Germany.)

With bold disregard of parliaments and data protection concerns and without public discussion, Schily has pushed his favourite project through on the European level - bypassing the German parliament, without a democratic mandate. Rather than giving parliament an opportunity to consider the consequences for data protection and civil rights, he forced a European directive, which achieves immediate legal status in all EU countries. In this way, Schily managed to circumvent § 4 of the German passport law which required the Bundestag (the Lower House in Germany's federal parliament) to pass a law determining the biometric data to be stored.

And it's not just us who regard Otto Schily's actions as deeply undemocratic. When the Federal Data Protection Commissioner, Peter Schaar (of the Green party) criticised this hasty introduction of e-passports through the European back door and called for a comprehensive security concept for protecting the data, Otto Schily accused him of abusing his position. It was not within Schaar's brief to judge the expediency and timing of introducing biometric features, Schily rebuked him via Deutschlandfunk radio and recommended him, overbearingly, to exercise "more restraint", and make sure not to continue abusing his position with uncalled-for objections.

With these self-righteous attacks on the independence of the Data Protection Commissioner, an advice-resistant Otto Schily obviously wanted to silence a competent critic in his own area of responsibility. But it is among the Data Protection Commissioner's duties to make the concerned public aware of the fact that until today there is no open risk analysis assessing potentials of system failure or abuse in biometric passports. A study by the German Authority for Security in Information Technology (Bundesamt für Sicherheit in der Informationstechnik, BSI) says the new technology is neither ready for use nor mature. Face recognition, for example, is very error-prone, if only for the reason that faces change considerably over the years. Thousands of people every day, it must be feared, will be rejected at airports and restricted in their freedom to travel because their digital photos or fingerprints will not be accepted by the software or not pass comparison with their real-life original. The people affected will probably be under burden of proof, and in the worst case come under awful suspicion. Schily is knowingly accepting that risk.

Electronic passports are open to abuse as well as failure. The biometric data can be read at all control points at home or abroad - and the person affected won't know who has access to this sensitive data or what will be done with it. And with the RFID reading process being contact-less, "over the air" and therefore impossible to notice, it can't really be ensured that not only border crossing points but also unauthorised third parties could collect movement profiles from unsuspecting passport holders.

The Green party in the Bundestag has so far managed to prevent Schily's plan of storing all biometric data in one central database. However, a distributed storage structure does still pose risks: With little extra effort, biometric passport data from distributed files could be automatically matched with "wanted" lists, or with fingerprints taken from known criminals or found at crime locations. And digitised facial images could be compared with video footage from public spaces to filter out suspects or wanted persons. A major step towards a general suspicion against all citizens of this country - or all Europeans, because on the EU level there are plans for a central biometric database.

In conjunction with electronic identification documents, a billion-Euro surveillance structure with high risks of abuse is being constructed. The cost of a German passport to the citizen is more than doubling, from 26 to 59 ¤ - what the state subsidy to one e-passport amounts to we won't dare to estimate. But the huge cost is out of any sensible proportion to the alleged gain in security. The e-passport with its biometric features can be manipulated, too. On the other hand, the existing German ID cards and passports are already considered as hard to fake as any in the world. Still Otto Schily presented his biometric project as a great step forward for security and as an important element in the fight against organised crime and international terrorism. With such claims, Schily can achieve no more than nurturing a dangerous illusion of security, because the e-passport does not at all offer an automatic gain in security. Neither the suicide attacks in New York nor those in Madrid and London could have been prevented with the new technology. After all, there is no biometric feature that signals, "This passport belongs to a potential terrorist - please check it before each attempted attack."

Otto Schily has not imposed the e-passport on us as a supposed security instrument, but also as an innovation project to safeguard national industry. Introducing biometrics quickly and before all the other EU member states, he alleges, is in Germany's vital interest. With it "we prove", said Schily in a speech on 2 Jun 2005, "how quickly German companies have adjusted to the new security technology and the future growth market of biometrics." Germany would take a leading role among EU countries in the area of security. However, we regard this scheme as covert subsidy to the industry, for example to Bundesdruckerei GmbH (Federal Printing Office, Ltd), chip makers Philips and Infineon, but also as premature obedience to the US government, which had been exerting massive pressure on European governments on the biometrics issue.

The biometric-digital registration of the whole population is not only a disproportionate violation of informational self-determination but also a declaration of mistrust in the population. They are subjected to a treatment normally reserved to suspects or criminals during police identification. With Schily's biometric obsession, people are degraded to mere objects of state power in the name of assumed security - without this being justified by the individuals' coming even close to being a threat. Otto Schily counters this with the cynical argument of the "dignity of the finger" having no higher value than that of the face (Süddeutsche Zeitung, 24 Aug 2004). He also likes to refer to Spanish ID cards, which already contain (non-digital) fingerprints. But he fails to mention that this measure is a relic from the fascist Franco regime. And he does not discuss the fact that these ID cards could neither prevent the bombings of the Basque ETA nor those in Madrid.

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