Thanks (again) to the LSE’s Aaron Martin for spotting this article about reactions to the introduction of biometric passports in Algeria. I wanted to reproduce and translate a paragraph from the conclusion, because what the author argues is this: what has tended to grab the Algerian headlines about the biometric passport programme is the backlash from those who say it offends their religious sensibilities. Specifically, they object to the fact that women will have to remove their veil to be photographed and subsequently authenticated – exposing their face and ears. Men also object to the fact that ICAO specifications do not permit photographs in which the subject’s beard extends beyond the lower border of the photo (the author refers in particular to the long beards affected by ‘hundreds of thousands’ of Salafi adherents – a sect of Sunni muslims).
However, says Cherif Ouazani, this pre-occupation with beards and veils is obscuring the real issue, which is the assault on privacy. He goes on to describe the requirements imposed on passport applicants at the time of registration:
“In addition to photos and digital fingerprints, the application includes a birth certificate with the barbaric designation “12 S”, signed by the mayor, and a duly completed 12-page form. School and university career must be documented, and one must give the names, addresses and telephone number or email address of three classmates. Men must provide information about their national service with, there too, names and contact details of three former comrades from their unit. On top of that, when submitting the application, the applicant must be accompanied by a “co-respondant” attesting to the truthfulness of the information presented.”
Here’s the original text:
“Le dossier du requérant comprend en effet, outre les photos et la prise d’empreintes digitales, un acte de naissance à la dénomination barbare, « 12 S », signé par le maire et un formulaire de douze pages dûment rempli. Le cursus scolaire et universitaire doit être détaillé, et l’on doit donner les noms de trois camarades de classe, leur adresse, leur numéro de téléphone ou leur e-mail. Pour les hommes, des informations sur le service national sont requises, avec, là aussi, une référence à trois anciens camarades du contingent, avec leurs coordonnées. En sus, au moment d’effectuer ces démarches, le demandeur devra être accompagné d’un « répondant », attestant de la véracité des informations données.”
What I find interesting are the multiple respects in which the ICAO requirements, the practicalities and the Algerian cultural context all clash. For pragmatic and (principally) airline security reasons, the ICAO requirements are drafted without regard for cultural or gender nuances. ICAO don’t care what the social position of women is, or who does or doesn’t have a military national service requirement… and yet in the implementation, those factors result in gender-based differences in the levels of proof required, and the intrusion into the privacy of third parties.
In theory, in the UK, the deployment of biometric passports would be subject to a Privacy Impact Assessment, which in turn would – in this instance – presumably at least raise questions of gender/religious discrimination, even if it didn’t resolve them. That’s what I’d like to imagine, anyway. But then, as you know, I am an incurable optimist.