https://www.accessnow.org:443/draft-bill-biometric-passports-id-tunisia/
Tunisia biometric passports

Human rights organizations call for dropping the draft bill introducing biometric passports and ID cards in Tunisia

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The Tunisian Ministry of Interior (MoI) issued a statement on January 17th announcing plans to “resume launching the project on biometric passports and ID cards and expedite its implementation,” without prior notice. This move by the Ministry completely disregards the principle of transparency and the participatory approach that should be applied to legislation affecting the rights of Tunisian citizens, especially the right to privacy. The undersigned civil society organizations reiterate their opposition to this project, which would undermine the basic rights of Tunisian citizens, and call on the MoI to withdraw the draft bill and refrain from adopting it. 

The Ministry of Interior first submitted the draft proposal for new biometric ID cards with an electronic microchip to parliament in 2016 as an amendment to Law No. 27 of 1993 on the National Identity Card. At the time, national and international civil society organizations in Tunisia strongly opposed the draft law for its failure to provide sufficient legal and technical safeguards to protect the right to privacy, stipulated in Article 24 of the Tunisian constitution, and to protect Tunisian citizens’ personal data, in compliance with the Law on the Protection of Personal Data (Organic Act No. 2004-63 of 27 July 2004 on the Protection of Personal Data). As a result, the MoI officially withdrew the draft bill after two years, but submitted it again in a new format through the Presidency of the Government in June 2020, along with the draft law on biometric passports. The Parliamentary Committee on Rights, Freedoms and Foreign Relations started the debate on this draft bill in 2021. 

The wording of the MoI’s statement was vague, as it did not specify the new amendments to the text of the law it refers to. Moreover, there is no mention of any timeline regarding the next steps, nor of the number and nature of the workshops held around the law, the stakeholders included, and the budget allocated to implement it. The statement issued by the MoI also did not clarify which version of the law is to be adopted, as past discussions and deliberations focused on two different versions of the same draft bill — the first in 2016 and the second in 2020. 

Civil society organizations are alarmed to see the MoI submitting the draft bill once again and urging  to speed up its implementation process, particularly under the exceptional measures currently enforced in the country pursuant to Article 80 of the Constitution, and under the current economic conditions in Tunisia. Digital identity projects are costly, especially given their requirements in terms of launching and implementation, including the costs of human resources, the cards’ data, the registration infrastructure, the central IT infrastructure, and the media and awareness campaigns. Further, collecting biometric data requires scanning equipment and expensive softwares. According to MoI representatives, the cost of the project is estimated at 45 million Tunisian Dinars allocated within the Ministry’s budget since 2015. 

Despite the existence of a legal framework protecting personal data — the Law on the Protection of Personal Data of 2004 — we remain concerned about the fact that the current law is outdated in its scope and does not provide adequate and robust privacy safeguards to protect Tunisians’ personal data, such as fingerprints, which are considered sensitive data given their personal nature and their tight and unique connection with the person. Without these safeguards, the potential for increased surveillance of citizens through such a biometric database is highly dangerous, especially given the MoI has failed to address a number of concerns raised around the original proposal, mainly on: the nature of data to be stored in the biometric database and its location, the authorities who have access to this personal data, the institutions or individuals who have the right to access the encrypted personal data, and procedures for ensuring the security of the data. 

The mass collection of biometric data is a huge threat to citizens’ security and privacy, as cyber threats, hacking, and data leaks have become inevitable in our increasingly digitized world. Many incidents related to violating, leaking, and stealing data have proven that no matter how strong and tight the cybersecurity procedures to protect these data are, there is not a single system in the world that is immune to hacking and abuse of its data. We’ve witnessed the cost of these kinds of systems being compromised around the world, including in India, Argentina, and most recently, with the ICRC

In such cases, the real danger and sensitivity of an individual’s biometric data lie in the fact that they are generally permanent information that cannot be deleted or modified if leaked or stolen, nor can the damage be redressed. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights warned, in his report on privacy in the digital age issued in 2018, against the danger of abusing biometric data, as it is “extremely difficult to remedy and may seriously affect an individual’s rights. Moreover, biometric data may be used for different purposes from those for which it was collected, including the unlawful tracking and monitoring of individuals.”

We, therefore, remind the Tunisian government of its commitment to protect personal data by unanimously ratifying the Council of Europe’s Convention for the Protection of Individuals with regard to Automatic Processing of Personal Data (Convention 108) and its Additional Protocol, and adopting a new law in line with the current requirements of the digital world and modern technologies. 

The ambiguity and haste of this proposal deepen our concerns regarding the adoption of a legal text as a non-appealable presidential decree in a total absence of public consultation and dialogue with civil society organizations, relevant national bodies and experts, and other stakeholders. 

In light of the above, the undersigned organizations and associations call for: 

  1. Withdrawing the project on biometric passports and ID cards and refrain from adopting it;
  2. Enacting a new law on personal data protection that inherently focuses on the citizen, respects individuals’ rights, and ensures the protection of Tunisian citizens’ private and unique personal data; and
  3. Adopting a transparent and participatory approach when drafting legal texts directly linked to the basic rights of Tunisian citizens — most importantly the right to privacy and personal data protection — through comprehensive, transparent, and public consultations with civil society organizations and all stakeholders. 

Signatory organizations and associations:

Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT)

The Tunisian Forum for Social and Economic Rights (FTDES)

National Union of Tunisian Journalists (SNJT)

Access Now

Tunisian League of Human Rights (LTDH)

Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (ATFD)

Tunisian Association for the Defence of Individual Liberties (Association Tunisienne de Défense des Libertés Individuelles)

Al Bawsala

Lawyers Without Borders (Avocats Sans Frontières)

Committee for the Respect of Freedom and Human Rights in Tunisia (CRLDHT)

Euromed Rights 

Onshor

Organization Against Torture in Tunisia (OTCC)

Union for Unemployed Graduates (UDC)

Nachaz Association

Tunisian Association for Rights and Liberties (Association Tunisienne des Droits et des Libertés)

Bina Association for Media and Development

Wachm Association

The Tunisian Association for Cultural Action (ATAC)

Intersection Association for Rights and Liberties

The Federation of Tunisians for a Citizenship of the Two Shores (FTCR)

Union of Tunisians for Citizen Action (UTAC) 

Observatory for the Defence of the Right to Difference in Tunisia

Joussour Citizenship Association

No Peace Without Justice Organization

Committee of Vigilance for Democracy in Tunisia (CVDT) – Belgium

23-10 Association 

Equality Association

The Tunisian League of Women Voters (LET) 

Vigilance Association

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