UN’s Counter-terrorist Travel Biometrics Poses Human Rights Risk: Special Rapporteur

By Masha Borak

The United Nations’ travel surveillance system, which collects biometric data to track down terrorists, should be paused and “urgently reviewed,” according to a UN Special Rapporteur.

The warning was issued in a position paper at the end of October by Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, who recently ended her term. An analysis of the paper was published this week by Statewatch, a UK-based non-governmental organization.

The UN Countering Terrorist Travel Programme (CTTP) was launched in 2019 to help exchange traveler information such as Passenger Name Records (PNR) and Advanced Passenger Information (API) among law enforcement agencies. Its main aim is to help authorities identify risky individuals traveling to their territory.

Ní Aoláin, however, claims that the API and PNR collection and sharing system was never designed with human rights in mind. As a result, the system has benefited countries with concerning records of human rights abuse such as Azerbaijan.

The country has arrested political refugees at airports while preventing departures of government critics.

“[The UN is] placing immensely powerful tools in the hands of States which may misuse them, intentionally or inadvertently, to jeopardize human rights, without any evidence of sufficient prior vetting, and without any practical or legal recourse to prevent or sanction such misuse,” she says.

Ní Aoláin, who served as Special Rapporteur for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights while Countering Terrorism, cites other concerns regarding the travel program.

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API data, which is taken from passports, and Passenger Name Record data, taken from travel bookings with airlines, travel agencies and other companies, have been collected to enable automated risk assessment of travelers using algorithms. The Netherlands donated its travel data analysis software, goTravel, to the UN to help member states in setting up API and PNR systems.

“goTravel software is an experimental software program which […] has never been subject to formal review in respect of its accuracy rate in identifying named individuals, much less the accuracy of its use in any risk-based profiling system,” Ní Aoláin writes.

In Germany, the government has admitted that only 0.1 percent of passengers analyzed with its travel surveillance system are considered potential terrorism risks. This means that 99.9 percent of all air passengers will have sensitive data processed unnecessarily, the Special Rapporteur argues. Aside from questionable accuracy, AI systems carry an inherent risk of perpetuating or even enhancing discrimination, the paper notes.

The UN Countering Terrorist Travel Programme published a mid-term, independent evaluation of its work in March this year. The evaluation describes the project as a success and predicts that it will continue beyond its end date on December 31, 2023.

The evaluation recommends an increased focus on human rights and collaboration with human rights experts along with other UN agencies such as UNHCR and UNICEF.

Source: Biometric Update

Masha Borak is a technology journalist. Her work has appeared in Wired, Business Insider, Rest of World, and other media outlets. Previously she reported for the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong. Reach out to her at masha@biometricupdate.com.

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