Does the Netherlands aspire to an Orwellian Panopticon?

Thursday, 01 September 2011

Step 1: E-Gates at Schiphol Airport

Today a seemingly innocent article in Computable caught Privacy First’s attention. The title of the article is ‘‘Passport photo system is fraud sensitive’’ and its subtitle reads ‘‘Digital passport photo inadequate’’. The gist of the article is that the quality of the facial scans in passports (and ID cards) will have to be improved in order for the chance of mismatches in automated facial recognition at Schiphol Airport to be reduced. An experiment with facial recognition is currently planned for the fall of 2011. At Schiphol 36 so-called E-Gates will then be installed: gates for automatic border passage.    

On your way to the gate you will simply walk through one of those gates: the System verifies whether your face corresponds with the face on the chip of your passport. In case the System works 100% a 100% of the time then it’s enormously useful. In case it doesn’t, the System causes delays and irritation, long queues and new opportunities for identity fraud. And even if it does work faultlessly, there’s still a hidden 'catch': automatic screening of your security profile. Before coming to Schiphol you have already been completely screened on the basis of all possible databases that have been linked to you. Once at Schiphol it’s 'party time': without you knowing it your name has been assigned to a green, yellow, orange or red flag. More colors are possible. All of this remains unknown to you, which makes it all the more exciting. If you are taken apart from the queue at the E-Gate then it won’t be for a cup of tea and a biscuit, but to admire the color of your virtual flag once more. After all, it’s party time and the Royal Netherlands Border Police would rather not be color-blind. With a bit of luck you can still go aboard your plane, hoping of course that at the arrival in country X there’s no other feast of flags awaiting you.

Step 2: passport photo booth in the city hall

A few years later (on your return to the Netherlands) you need to renew your passport. For new passport photos you go to your local professional photographer. However, he redirects you to the city hall. For some time passports photos are still only allowed to be made there. You vaguely recall an article in Computable that already referred to this: ‘‘Mistakes [with passport photos] could be prevented by making a digital photo of the passport applicants in the city hall, at the moment they make their passport application.’’ At the time (2011) this seemed enormously useful to the government. Henceforth no more hassle with professional photographers but high definition 3D photos taken straight away in a special Big Brother booth at the town hall, easy as that. Designed initially for E-Gates at Schiphol, then used for automatic facial recognition in shops and on the streets, eventually worldwide. A comparable Dutch plan was rejected in 2007 under pressure from the sector of professional photographers. Since that time our country was hit by one recession after the other. Meanwhile the Dutch privacy movement flourished. But that wasn't meant to spoil the 'fun'. Therefore it took the Dutch government a lot of effort to convince photographers that they could very well do without their passport photo revenues. Not to mention the privacy of Dutch citizens.

Will this be our future? Not if it’s up to Privacy First. We’ll keep you posted.

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