Do travellers to the EU trust fingerprinting?

At a time when biometrics are increasingly being viewed as a potential solution to improving EU border management, around 4 out of 10 non-EU nationals at border crossing points said they were very comfortable with being fingerprinted, according to the results of a survey carried out by the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA). However, concerns over difficulties when there is wrong data, point to the need to ensure that such situations can be dealt with and that travellers are adequately informed about the use of biometrics, including what to do in case of errors.

Biometrics, such as fingerprints, are being used in the EU’s existing large-scale IT border management systems, Eurodac and the Visa Information System (VIS). They are also planned to be part of the EU’s Smart Borders Package, the European Commission’s proposal for a more modern and efficient border management system for the Schengen Area that will use state-of-the-art technology.

To measure travellers’ attitudes to fundamental rights when biometrics are used in border checks, FRA interviewed over 1,200 non-EU nationals at seven land, sea and air border crossing points during the summer of 2015. The small-scale survey looked at fingerprinting, facial recognition and iris scans.

The main findings include:

  • Almost 60% of respondents are comfortable with providing their fingerprints when crossing borders. Most don’t feel that providing their fingerprints compromises their right to privacy (47%) and to dignity (70%). However, over a fifth people found fingerprinting to be intrusive and humiliating.
  • Of the three techniques more people are very uncomfortable with iris-scan (22%) compared to fingerprinting and facial imagery (12%).
  • Over half of the respondents believe that they would not be able (or do not know if they will be able) to cross the border in case the technology does not work properly.
  • Half of the respondents believe that errors in their personal data could not be easily corrected.
  • Almost half of the respondents trust in the reliability of biometric technologies, while 21% do not trust its reliability. The remaining 32% do not know or cannot say.
  • Over 80% consider it important to be informed about why their personal data is being collected and processed.
  • Almost a third believe that only people over 18 years old should be allowed to go through biometric checks. The proposed age limit is currently 12.
  • Around two thirds believe the technologies used to collect biometric data could harm their health or are uncertain on this issue.

The survey findings underline how most travellers do not view the use of biometrics in border management as a rights violation. However, they also highlight the need to keep travellers informed about how and why biometrics are being used, and what can be done in cases of errors such as out of date or mistaken data on file.

The FRA survey formed part of the tests on the technical elements of the EU’s Smart Borders package that are being carried out by the European Agency for the Operational Management of Large-Scale IT Systems in the Area of Freedom, Security and Justice (eu-LISA). In parallel, FRA is carrying out a wider project examining the positive as well as negative fundamental rights implications of processing biometric data in the EU’s existing large-scale IT border management systems.

The findings can be found in the annex to eu-LISA’s report ‘Smart Borders: Report on the technical conclusions of the pilot project’.