The European Court of Justice recently held that it is legal for the authorities to require individuals to have their digital fingerprints taken before issuing a passport. The practice does infringe citizens’ personal rights, but is justified by the need to fight fraud.

Requiring digital fingerprints for passports is legal ©-cirquedesprit-Fotolia
Requiring digital fingerprints for passports is legal ©-cirquedesprit-Fotolia

Digital fingerprints

Since 2007, the German authorities have been issuing biometric passports. The biometric data collected for passports includes digital fingerprints.

A man from Bochum brought a court action after the passport authorities rejected his passport application in response to his refusal to allow digital fingerprints to be taken. The German court referred the case to the European Court of Justice for a preliminary ruling.

The ECJ came to the conclusion that although the collection of digital fingerprints does infringe citizens’ general personal rights, the measure is justified by the need to fight fraud (case ref.: C-291/12).

Combatting fraud

The court reasoned that saving digital fingerprints is designed in particular to protect the general public by preventing illegal entry into the EU. The use of biometric fingerprints in passports would drastically reduce the number incidences in which false passports are used in order to gain access to the EU, according to the judges. As a result, the measure is proportionate to its aim and prevails over citizens’ general personal rights.

In addition the court noted that only authorised officials have access to the biometric data; thus preventing unintended access.

The court clarified that digital fingerprints may only be collected for the purposes of proving the authenticity of the passport and the identity of its owner. The data may not be transferred to other data storage media.

Lastly, as the biometric data is only saved in the passport, they remain the property of the citizen as the sole owner.