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Should Children Be Fingerprinted?


At Crossmatch, we have recently seen growing interest in the issue of fingerprinting children. As policymakers and operators start to grapple with the complicated issues surrounding this application of biometric technology, we thought we would lay out a few of our perspectives on the matter.

In a recent advisory opinion, the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights took up the complicated task of creating guidelines around child fingerprinting. As part of an overarching revision of the Dublin regulation —which governs adjudication of refugee and asylum applications throughout Europe—the agency was grappling with a recommendation that the requirement for fingerprinting be lowered from 14 to six years of age.

While never explicitly acknowledged, the advisory opinion is built on the assumption that fingerprinting even young children in the context of a refugee or asylum application is an operational necessity.

After decades of enforcement experience, it is clear that the absence of comprehensive biometric records has created a significant “pull” factor for migrants into Europe. This gap was large enough for policymakers to actively seek a change.

The agency suggests several best practices to minimize the perceived impacts all while not questioning the underlying necessity of fingerprinting a broader cohort of children. These include:

  • providing age-appropriate explanations orally
  • blocking or minimizing biographic information held in EURODAC
  • recording family ties

At the same time, the agency flags the potential need for broader dissemination of a child’s fingerprints in certain circumstances, such as when the child is declared missing.

The European decision both reflects and foreshadows a series of debates in various countries around fingerprinting children. In the United States, Customs and Border Protection has also declared its intention to lower the age of fingerprinting from 14 to 6 years old, a reaction to the flood of unaccompanied minors through the southern border.

As part of its ambitious Aadhar national registration program, India is considering the potential benefits of fingerprinting newborns —a more effective way of identifying infants in need of government wellness programs.

On the other side of the spectrum, privacy advocates are increasingly concerned that fingerprinting children constitutes a dangerous form of mission creep, in which civil liberties of the most vulnerable will be compromised.

Several US states have passed outright bans on fingerprinting children, even for seemingly beneficial programs like this one to make school lunch programs more efficient. The European agency decision also contains some warnings and caveats on fingerprinting children, implicitly equating forced fingerprinting in particular to forms of degrading treatment—currently banned under international law.

Up to this point, the perceived disadvantages of child fingerprinting have been overcome only in circumstances where they are significantly outweighed by the perceived benefits:

  • migration pull factors
  • the need for efficient delivery of services
  • the protection of children from trafficking

All of these factors have produced a strong enough reason for authorities to expand the use of child fingerprinting. Significantly, these concrete operational issues were also able to overcome the weight of more theoretically-oriented privacy and data protection concerns.

In less vital applications – those deemed novel, merely innovative, or “nice to have” – child fingerprinting tends to face vocal opposition. The boundaries of novelty are constantly shifting, particularly as biometric technologies are used more and more by both adults and children. Yet there remains an ill-defined barrier surrounding child fingerprinting which most societies remain unwilling to cross.

As policymakers wrestle with the legal and political implications of fingerprinting children, there is a technical aspect which remains poorly understood. While it is known that the fingerprints of a child don’t stabilize until the early-to-middle teens, far less is known about the ability to match fingerprints before stabilization happens, particularly when the matching is performed without a human examiner.

Some pioneering research is underway to define the contours of the issue but more study is needed to push this research into the operational arena. Time is a factor. As policies quickly evolve to meet the changing demographics of migration and other issues, technical requirements and agreed standards will need to be in place to rapidly turn those policies into operational realities.

Technical inquiries into child fingerprinting are starting to gather steam. As the use of biometrics grows in both the commercial and government sectors, children are increasingly likely to be swept up in the trend.

Productive debates have already started on this subject but there’s a need to bring scattered constituencies and stakeholders together for a more comprehensive discussion. Only by aligning the technology, policy and operational realities of child fingerprinting can we come to a common understanding of its application.

Ben Ball is the Government Market Director at Crossmatch, where he oversees market intelligence and strategic outreach to government customers around the world. A ten year veteran of the Federal government, Ben was a Foreign Service Officer and worked in the Department of Homeland Security.
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