As facts trickle in regarding Malaysia Flight 370, arguably the media’s biggest mystery in recent memory, privacy advocates can’t help but say “I told you so.”
Biometric Security Failure
Since 9/11, the pressure has been mounting for governments to tighten their grip on security while privacy suffers as collateral damage in the affair. Privacy advocates decry such developments, echoing the adage of Benjamin Franklin: “they who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
It’s become public knowledge that two of the passengers onboard 370 used stolen European passports to get onto the plane. At least one of these passports had biometric features, allowing it to electronically hold fingerprints and face imaging. Immigration officials can easily dig into this data in order to determine whether passport-holders actually have the identities they allege.
Unfortunately, it seems, security officials didn’t take full advantage of this biometric security feature, and someone managed to get on the plane that shouldn’t have. It’s not yet clear if the passport imposters played a role in the plane’s disappearance.
The executive director of Privacy International in London, Gus Hosein, said this new evidence goes to show that enhancements in passport security still lack a critical element. “It’s not just that the trade-off wasn’t worth it,” Hosein explains, “the proponents of this policy were short-sighted and wanted to play with new technologies while building national biometric databases.”
Hosein is a strong opponent of government intrusion into privacy matters, including the proliferation of biometric techniques to index and track citizens.
Putting biometrics to good use to thwart wrongdoings and impersonation is still an imperfect practice for governments the world over. The United States, in an effort to better track people coming in and out, requires French and German visitors who utilize the visa waiver program to have electronic passports if they received them in 2007 or later. These passports house chips with digital headshots of the owners. “Successful testing in the United States and overseas has been an important step forward in a larger, comprehensive effort to enhance security and facilitate legitimate travel and trade through international cooperation,” the Department of Homeland Security says on its web site.
Hosein, however, has his doubts about the efficacy of such measures. “Until we have more transparency over how effective biometric passports actually are, or probably are not,” he notes, “we can only conclude it was a premature policy established at a time when we were looking for new product design solutions to complex problems.”
Human error and flawed protocol, it appears, are pieces of the puzzle that have yet to have the wrinkles ironed out.