In an increasingly interconnected world, personal privacy is becoming more and more of a rarity. Lives are led online, records are held in electronic databases, and the rise of social media means information is instantly accessible and has a digital afterlife. In recent years, passport control has been improved in some airports to include a retina scanner component, as paper passports have been proven to be susceptible to forgery. Countries such as Belgium and the Czech Republic even have compulsory electronic identity cards containing data from eye colour to fingerprint data. With each new digital device in our lives, features such as retina scanners or electronics activated by an individual’s voice or fingerprint are becoming more prevalent. And yet this gives way to the ever-growing question of how much of our identity is left private, as opposed to on government record.
France’s motto is simple but clear; liberté, égalité, fraternité, yet with recent technological developments, the first phrase could soon be rendered redundant. In the past few months, the French government has proposed plans to introduce a massive database, which could hold biometric details of up to 60 million people. The database would include names, addresses, marital status, eye colours, weights, photographs, and fingerprints. Indeed in 2012, France’s Justice Minister Jean-Jacques Urvoas rejected plans for a similar database. However, the French Interior Ministry insists the information would not be used in legal or judicial cases, but its sole use would be to aid in tackling the ever-growing issue of identity fraud. The aim of the database in which the French government plans to invest is to prevent fraud by comparing the individual’s fingerprints with the records on the database. Nevertheless, this proposition has brought with it a wealth of issues and concerns.
Indeed, France’s digital watchdog has expressed apprehension that a database of this magnitude, with so many personal details of so many people, would ‘create a target of inestimable value in a data world where no system is impregnable.’ Indeed, no computer database is totally immune to hackers of the right ability, so the thought of so much valuable and personal information being stored in an area accessible to people with the right level of computer skills and dubious intentions is undoubtedly worrying. If the information is compiled by the state, then the citizens will have no say as to whether they consent to having personal information stored in this way. They will simply have to comply.
However, it must be recognised that the French government is not the only institution to push for such a database to be installed in the past months. Earlier in 2016, the European Parliament supported a similar system with data from airline passengers who flew in and out of Europe, as well as beginning enquiries into sharing such data between international police forces. Although this augments international networking and security, it puts every individual whose data is stored there at risk of having vital information leaked or made public. In the United Kingdom, a bill is to be passed by the end of 2016, which will allow security agencies access to personal data held by private and public organisations.
This step forward is a double-edged sword, where the promise of greater security is an advantage, but such initiatives also pose the risk of data leakage and hacking. Indeed, it is important not to underestimate the risk of personal, private data being hacked. In 2015, 5.6 million fingerprint records were stolen in the U.S. after a government database was breached. Information theft does not even have to be as a result of hackers; a database of such a magnitude would require many staff and personnel to manage it, increasing the possibility of potential access points and a resultant data leak.
In cases such as these, which aim to improve national and international security but simultaneously pose the risk of personal data being leaked, the pros and the cons have to be taken into serious consideration. Citizens may unsurprisingly feel uncomfortable with biological information such as fingerprints being stored for reference. It heightens the idea of people as state-controlled entities, rather than people with autonomy and individual worth. It raises the question of how much of our everyday lives is observed and documented, in a fashion akin to George Orwell’s 1984.
It is a difficult and intriguing issue to analyse this personal data concern in relation to the European Convention of Human Rights. One such grey area includes Article 8 (Privacy), which includes the right to a ‘private and family life.’ Arguably, having intimate data at government disposal purely for legal convenience (when the individual is innocent of any crime or wrongdoing) seems like an intrusion of the legal understanding of personal privacy.
However, after the numerous terrorist attacks which have shaken Europe in the past two years, the need for a database which prevents identity fraud is arguably greater than ever before. The French government states firmly that TES (Titres Électroniques Securisés), the French electronic data system is perfectly secure and a financially viable way to fight security fraud. The far more expensive alternative, they argue, is inserting an electronic chip into the individual’s ID card on which their biometric data is stored. Whether you support this proposition or are against it, trials are beginning, with full merging of data from French passports and identity cards to be completed by October 2018, creating a ‘mega-file’ of personal data.
The French government continues to state this information will be used simply to confirm individual’s identities and not to investigate them in any way. However, it is a slippery slope and once the government is in possession of this data, it never be fully erased and it could potentially be used by whoever gains access to the database. This has disturbing similarities to the Vichy regime during the Second World War, where census information was used to determine who was Jewish and should be deported. It is yet another step towards the destruction of personal freedom, a concept for which the Western world and Europe are so well known.