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EU Court leaves judgment on storage of fingerprints to national judge

Thursday, 16 April 2015
© Lisa S. / Shutterstock.com © Lisa S. / Shutterstock.com

Today, the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg (EU Court) has come up with its long awaited judgment in four Dutch cases related to the storage of fingerprints under the Dutch Passport Act. The EU Court did so at the request of the Dutch Council of State. The EU Court deems the storage of fingerprints in databases to fall outside the scope of the European Passport Regulation. Therefore, the Court leaves the judicial review of such storage to national judges and the European Court of Human Rights.

Cause for the ruling

In all four Dutch cases citizens refused to give their fingerprints (and facial scans) when they requested a new Dutch passport or ID card. For this reason, their requests for a new passport or ID card were rejected. In 2012, their subsequent lawsuits ended up before the Dutch Council of State (Raad van State), which decided to ask the EU Court to clarify relevant European law (European Passport Regulation) before coming up with its own ruling. Subsequently, in 2013, the EU Court judged in a similar German case that the obligation to give ones fingerprints under the Passport Regulation is not unlawful. However, in this case, the EU Court failed to carry out a thorough review on the basis of the privacy-related legal requirements of necessity and proportionality. Moreover, the EU Court refused to merge the (more substantiated) Dutch cases with the German one, even though this was an explicit request from the Council of State. The ruling of the EU Court in the German case presented the Council of State (along with 300 million European citizens) with a disappointing fait accompli. During the case before the EU Court at the end of 2014, new arguments and new evidence in the Dutch cases fell on deaf ears: the EU Court wished not to deviate from the German case and appeared uninterested in the, by now, proven lack of necessity and proportionality of taking fingerprints (low passport fraud rates) and the enormous error rates when it comes to the biometric verification of fingerprints (25-30%). In that sense, the current ruling of the EU Court comes as no surprise to the Privacy First Foundation.

Bright spot: ID card without fingerprints

The only chink of light in the ruling of the EU Court is the confirmation that national ID cards don't fall within the scope of the European Passport Regulation. The Dutch government seemed to have already been anticipating this judgment by ending the compulsory taking of fingerprints for ID cards as of January 20, 2014. In this respect, the ruling of the EU court doesn't bring any change to the current situation in the Netherlands, but it does confirm that the introduction of ID cards without fingerprints at the start of 2014 was the right choice of the Dutch government. Most other EU Member States have never actually had ID cards with fingerprints; under the European Passport Act, the compulsory taking of fingerprints only applied to passports. The fact that in between 2009 and 2014 the Netherlands wished to go further than the rest of Europe, was therefore at its own risk.

EU Court leaves judgement on database storage of fingerprints to national judges and the European Court of Human Rights

The EU Court in Luxemburg rules that possible storage and use of fingerprints in databases doesn't fall within the scope of the European Passport Regulation and leaves the judicial review of such storage to national judges and the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. However, in various (over a dozen) pending individual cases in the Netherlands against the Dutch Passport Act, administrative judges have so far always decided that such judicial review falls outside of their powers, as the relevant provisions of the Passport Act have not (yet) entered into force. It's now up to the Council of State to adjudicate on this matter. At the same time, the Dutch Supreme Court is currently looking into the collective civil Passport Trial of Privacy First and 19 co-plaintiffs (citizens), where such judicial review has already successfully been carried out by the Hague Court of Appeal and is now before the Supreme Court. In February 2014, the Hague Court of Appeal rightly judged that central storage of fingerprints is in breach of the right to privacy. In that sense the case of Privacy First is in line with the EU Court: review of database storage by a national judge, possibly followed by the European Court of Human Rights. Current individual cases before the Council of State may soon be resumed before the European Court of Human Rights as well. Privacy First hopes that this complex interaction between different judges will lead to the desired results with regard to privacy: a repeal of the taking and storage of fingerprints for passports!

Read the entire ruling of the EU Court HERE.

Update 17 April 2015: unfortunately, the ruling of the EU Court led to a lot of misleading media reporting in the Netherlands through Dutch press agency ANP (for example in Dutch national newspaper Volkskrant). Better comments can be found at the website of SOLV Attorneys, in this blog post by British professor Steve Peers and in Dutch newspaper Telegraaf, translated below:

"Monstrosity.

A database with fingerprints, relinquished by people who request a new passport, seems to have come a step closer. This could be deduced from a ruling of the European Court of Justice.

The Council of State asked the judges in Luxembourg for an opinion on four cases of citizens who refused to give their fingerprints. They appealed not getting a passport because of this. In a similar German case, the EU Court ruled that the compulsory taking of fingerprints isn't unlawful under European law.

Yesterday, the EU Court ruled in the Dutch case that the storage of fingerprints is a responsibility of the Member States. So the national judge will have to review this. As the only Member State, the Netherlands wanted a central register of fingerprints: a register that would even be accessible by secret services. The Passport Act that regulated this has not yet entered into force and last year the Hague Court of Appeal ruled that the central storage is in breach of the right to privacy.

Research points out that such a database brings along many risks, varying from security leaks to improper use and criminal manipulation. This proves that the whole system is a monstrosity that should never be introduced." 
Source: Telegraaf 17 April 2015, p. 2.

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