Germany Weighs Biometric Registration Options for Visa Applicants
By Veysel Oezcan
Humboldt University Berlin
July 1, 2003
The German government is testing various biometric registration methods for visa applicants, including fingerprinting, iris scanning, and digital photos, with an eye to settling on standard procedures by this fall.
Only applicants for long-term visas, which allow more than three months' residence, will be affected by the planned biometric registration program. Some three million foreigners applied for visas to enter Germany in 2002, with 2.6 million visas issued, about 400,000 of them long-term.
In addition, biometric registration will be limited to people from certain nations, including so-called "high-risk countries" that German authorities fear could harbor terrorists. So far, it is not clear which states will be affected by the registration program.
The basis for the introduction of the biometric identification procedures is the "Law on Combating Terrorism" that took effect in January 2002, reflecting security concerns in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States.
In addition to overt security considerations, an added benefit of biometrics, from the perspective of authorities, is its potential usefulness in bids to deport failed asylum seekers. Under international law, states cannot deport individuals without knowing their country of origin. Some states from which Germany's asylum seekers originate, such as Nigeria, have in the past used uncertainty about the background of failed asylum seekers to justify a refusal to take back their citizens. Many German officials hope the proposed biometric systems will make it harder for asylum seekers to obscure their country of origin, thereby making them easier to deport following failed bids.
A pilot project involving the fingerprinting of applicants has been under way since May 14 in Lagos.
Two other test runs, each with different procedures, will follow the Lagos project. Biometric registration of facial characteristics will be given a trial run in Jakarta. German embassies around the world currently take pictures of visa applicants, but in Jakarta, digital-quality photographs will be taken to record the exact proportions of the applicants' eyes, nose, and mouth. Biometric iris scanning is slated for testing at still another location, which has yet to be announced.
German authorities have been divided over the merits of the various biometric procedures. A spokesperson for the Ministry of Interior has informed the press that a fingerprint system is viable, but that ministry officials are awaiting the final results of the pilot projects. For its part, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs seems to favor a biometric facial recognition system. Kerstin Mueller, a Green Party member and high-level ministry official, stated at a public hearing with a panel of experts that fingerprinting "smacked of criminal law" and could prompt protests abroad and hinder bilateral relations.
Mueller also asserted that an iris registration system would be expensive, and questioned whether scanning would reveal key identifying features such as hereditary diseases. Some analysts fear that the government's plan to store collections of biometric characteristics, particularly sensitive information of this type, could lead to their misuse.
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