A new reality

New security threats are re-shaping international borders. It wouldn’t be accurate, in the world of today, to imagine these borders as merely physical frontiers between neighbouring countries. These borders are rather a complex set of physical and virtual spaces, through which our personal data also travels. And sometimes we are not even aware of that.

What are biometric identifiers?

All of us have unique and measurable biological characteristics, which can be processed by biometric identity systems. In some cases, these characteristics are also relatively permanent. Fingerprints are the most widely used biometric identifier, but there are many others, such as facial images, voice patterns, irises, complete palm prints, and even our DNA structure.

Through the use of specialized devices, information systems are able to translate these characteristics into mathematical patterns that are easy to process. In an ideal scenario (that’s to say when biometric identifiers are correctly taken, processed and matched), the most biometric identifiers used, the easiest it is for an information system to accurately identify a specific individual.

Biometrics can help to prevent mistaken identity, and can reduce the risk of people being wrongfully apprehended and arrested. They could also potentially be used to optimise the tracking of people who are reported missing. In addition, the risk of discriminatory ethnic profiling at borders may be reduced by introducing a higher degree of automation in border control.

The processes controlling the use of biometrics, however, must be audited and reviewed regularly to guarantee the correct use of the information systems, to observe the respect of the principle of purpose limitation and hence, safeguarding the fundamental rights of the travellers. 

What happens when we cross an international border?

Depending on the existing agreement between the country of origin of an individual, the country where that individual is coming from (which may not be the same), and the country to which that person is travelling (which may or may not be the country of origin), biometric identifiers might be taken at the time the person physically crosses the border. Sometimes these identifiers are even taken in advance, when applying for a visa. This means that our personal identifiers are being stored and managed by third parties, even if we finally decide not to travel.

This has a direct and immediate effect on our right to privacy, on the securitization of migrations, and on the forms of surveillance and state control practices. And it’s happening all over the world.


The use of biometrics may challenge our right to privacy if the systems used to obtain and process the information are not secure enough, have not been designed considering privacy aspects and are not audited regularly.

Furthermore, controls must be put in place to guarantee the biometric data is being used solely for the specific purpose of border control. If this is not the case, individuals must be informed and must be able to provide consent.

If there is an information breach, the implications for the security and privacy of the victims are enormous.

False positives and false negatives may occur, as the use of biometrics is not always completely accurate, not only due to technical factors but also because such accuracy relies on human factors, such as those related to a right association between a biometric identifier and the non-biometric data of an individual (names, surnames, etc.). This means that an individual may be mistaken for someone else – and this is a major security concern, but also something that potentially leads to someone’s rights being abused.

Mechanisms for conflict resolution (automated or not) must be put in place too, in order to solve potential flaws of the systems.

The use of biometrics may have undesired consequences for risk populations, immigrants, asylum seekers or refugees, which is why the rules of use of these systems must be clear, as should the regulatory framework. For some of these groups the process may be a traumatic experience. In order to avoid making bad decisions, there is a need to ensure that the data connected with the biometric identifier is correct and of high quality.

The use of biometrics is already a reality and is becoming a standard. When used correctly, this technology could be very helpful for different purposes. Nonetheless, its regulation is necessary, as its misuse may compromise security, privacy and fundamental rights. At Eticas Foundation we are interested in leading this discussion and providing valuable resources related to the topic.

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