There is no new thing under the sun, said the quotable author of Ecclesiastes a few thousand years ago. Won over by its pith and poetry, we have always regarded that statement as self-evidently true. Lately, though, we have begun to wonder if the exact opposite isn’t the case. Sometimes it seems as if each day brings some brand-new thing, from the momentous to the trivial, that must be laboriously grasped and absorbed.
Last week’s novelty du jour was one more spinoff from the global “war on terrorism,” with its ever-growing requirements for more and better security. Get ready to greet biometric passports. This development probably qualifies as trivial (unlike, say, the invention of the wheel or the introduction of the toothbrush), but there is no denying its newness. Within two or three years, if the Foreign Ministry has its way, Japanese citizens’ current passports will seem so last-millennium.
In a bid to increase security and foil counterfeiters, the ministry says, the new passports will include integrated circuit chips containing data on irises, retinas, fingerprints, palm prints, skeletal structure and/or voice characteristics. The precise information to be included is not yet clear, since it must conform to the common standard still being worked out by the Group of Eight industrialized nations in conjunction with the International Civil Aviation Organization.
Whatever package is adopted, though, the so-called biometric enhancement of travel documents will undoubtedly bring participating countries several steps closer to the world moviegoers glimpsed last year in the film “Minority Report,” in which actor Tom Cruise’s character undergoes eye surgery to outwit the authorities’ retinal identification scanners. In the movie, the retinal scans seemed both creepy and intrusive, a classic expression of the Big Brother mentality.
In fact, civil libertarians in all the countries contemplating the switch are concerned about the threat to privacy posed by biometrics, whether in passports or the even more controversial national identity cards. Some doubt the smart new passports will actually be effective in stopping determined criminals at borders while worrying that the more important result will be to create what one American skeptic has called a “de facto national identification system.” The technology has also been described as a slippery slope to a surveillance society.
It is essential for societies to have this debate, just as it is essential for people to be on guard against anything that gives governments greater control than is necessary over the movements of individual citizens. However, it seems clear that in the real world, as opposed to the movies or Kafkaesque novels, biometric passports will work for ordinary, law-abiding citizens, not against them. They are designed with a single primary goal in mind: to make it much harder, if not impossible, for someone to steal your passport, replace the photo and pass themselves off as you.
And make no mistake, such passport fraud-along with its twin, the theft and/or sale of blank passports — is a burgeoning industry worldwide, underpinning transnational criminal activities from human smuggling to drug trafficking to terrorism itself.
Japanese passports, along with those of the 27 other countries covered by the U.S. Visa Waiver Program, are particularly sought after. Under this program, citizens of participating countries are permitted to travel to the United States. for tourist or business purposes for 90 days or less without obtaining a U.S. visa. Since the pilot program was implemented in 1986, there has been a huge market for stolen Japanese passports in Asia, as Japan is the only Asian nation that has qualified for the VWP. Biometric chips would make it virtually impossible for anyone to modify a Japanese passport and try to enter the U.S. posing as a Japanese citizen.
If that weren’t argument enough, the U.S. passed a law last May that effectively closes the debate on the issue. After October 2004, all VWP-covered visitors will be required to hold passports electronically encoded with their identifying characteristics. If they don’t, they will need a visa. Not surprisingly, most of the countries participating in the VWP are working to put microchips into passports in time for the change.
It is ironic, in a way. For at least the past decade, we have had drummed into our heads the idea of a brave new borderless world, of peoples linked in amity by technology. Since Sept. 11, 2001, however, the face of globalism has changed. Nations have grown more, not less, fussy about borders and identity checks and more, not less, suspicious — an attitude facilitated, not impeded, by technology. Just another new reality to grasp in a world of suddenly dizzying novelty.
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