Automated passport photo query
Security authorities and intelligence services are allowed to automatically retrieve passport photos even without a concrete reason. We filed a constitutional complaint.
The GFF filed a constitutional complaint challenging the authority of various governmental security agencies and intelligence services to automatically retrieve biometric passport photographs even in the absence of any specific, individualized basis. This process violates the fundamental right of all citizens to informational self-determination. The complainants are Halina Wawzyniak, a Berlin lawyer and former member of the Bundestag of the Linke party; Markus Beckedahl, an investigative journalist and author of the blog netzpolitik.org; Andre Meister; and Göttingen lawyer Sven Adam.
Biometric photographs contain highly sensitive information
The amendments to the ID card and passport laws adopted in 2017 streamline the procedures governing the automated retrieval of passport photos. In addition, the amendments allow an array of governmental authorities not previously involved to engage in the practice.
The information contained in biometric photographs permits highly accurate recognition. Accordingly, the information obtained by these means is as sensitive and personal as genetic information or health data. In order to satisfy the basic right to informational self-determination, the “Personal ID Card Law” (Personalausweisgesetz) contains a ban on nationwide biometric databases. Passport photographs are stored exclusively in the databases of the identity and passport authorities. Originally, other government bodies received this data only upon request and for a specific purpose, such as the prosecution of a criminal offence.
With the change in the law, however, authorization to use the procedure no longer depends on review and verification by the identity card and passport authorities. Moreover, the use no longer needs to be linked to a specific, concrete purpose. Rather, it only needs to be tied to the tasks the governmental authority requesting the information is assigned to carry out. These tasks, however, can be quite far-reaching, such as, for example, in the case of the secret services. The procedure is open to authorities not previously involved in the process, including the Federal and State Office for the Protection of the Constitution, the Military Counter-Intelligence Service, and the Federal Intelligence Service. These newly enhanced powers amount to the functional equivalent of a nationwide database for biometric features.
Showing legal limits to the government
The GFF regards this handling of personal data by the government as a violation of the fundamental right to informational self-determination. Allowing the potential mass collection, storage, and use of biometric data of persons for whom there is no justification for doing so, together with the use of relevant technologies for evaluating the data obtained, is a first step towards the comprehensive monitoring of citizens by the state. The rapid development of techniques for automated face recognition that can identify specific individuals in a crowd — and determine individual characteristics such as age and gender from the images obtained — illustrates the danger.
Another highly problematic issue is the further delegation of power to the intelligence services. Due to the inherent nature of their work, intelligence services are far from transparent and, in addition, work in partnership with foreign services. As a result, citizens can no longer reliably determine who has access to their biometric data. Such developments, leading to the creation of a “transparent citizen”, are flatly incompatible with the rule of law.
We are currently waiting for the Federal Constitutional Court to act on our complaint. Attorney Peer Stolle represents the complainants before the Federal Constitutional Court, Attorney Benjamin Derin is assisting and advising the GFF in connection with the legal proceedings. The GFF has received financial support from the Digital Freedom Fund to bring this constitutional complaint.
- In the FAQ you will find the details of the complaint (in German).
- Here are the expert opinions (in German) of the interior committee of the German Bundestag: from the Federal Commissioner for Data Protection and Freedom of Information; from Dr. Bernd Holznagel (LLM) and Dr. Marius Stracke of the Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster; and from Dr. Constanze Kurz of the Chaos Computer Club.