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| 22 August, 2017

Lebanon unveils biometric diplomatic passport plan

Lebanon's Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil speaks during a joint news conference with Iraq's acting Foreign Minister Hussein Shahristani (not pictured) in Baghdad, August 18, 2014.

Lebanon's Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil speaks during a joint news conference with Iraq's acting Foreign Minister Hussein Shahristani (not pictured) in Baghdad, August 18, 2014.

REUTERS/Ali Abbas/Pool

22 August 2017

BEIRUT: Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil announced a plan Monday to supply all diplomatic figures in Lebanon with biometric passports to match international standards. “These passports can be used in all the embassies in the world,” Bassil said during an announcement held at the Foreign Ministry in Beirut Monday morning.

“This will grant [Lebanese] citizens greater protection.”

The move comes after General Security started issuing biometric passports to the Lebanese public last August.

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General Security head Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim said the plan was a step toward greater liberties for Lebanese nationals, who will be granted entry to many more countries in the world because of the security guarantees provided by the biometric passport.

Biometric passports use a contactless microchip containing important information about the document holder that border guards around the world can use to verify the document indeed belongs to the traveller. Lebanon is among the numerous countries adopting the biometric passports in line with changing international standards.

However, rights campaigners in many countries have questioned whether the information gathered indeed improved identification and warned it came at a significant cost to travelers’ right to privacy.

“This is because it is impossible to forge this type of document,” Ibrahim said.

Bassil said the plan was implemented due to collaboration between the Foreign Ministry and General Security.

The announcement came following a $5 million donation from the United States to Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces in order to upgrade Lebanon’s biometric verification system. The declared goal was to facilitate information sharing between Lebanon’s security agencies to better combat terrorism

“[The donation] will significantly improve the platform through which we share information on terrorists and criminals,” U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Elizabeth Richard said in a statement to Lebanese media Friday.

Richard’s comments suggest potential information sharing between the Lebanese government and the U.S. for security purposes. However, both the U.S. Embassy and the Lebanese government are not disclosing any details on the extent of this collaboration.

U.S. Embassy sources told The Daily Star by email Monday that “we do not discuss the particulars of how we share information on terrorists and criminals.” The statement added that “as the Ambassador mentioned in her remarks, we’ve seen time and again, in both countries, that our security services are at their best when they are actively coordinating, sharing information, and combining their resources and manpower.”

The rise of digitally enabled mass data collection in Lebanon has seen lawyers and activists scrutinize where the Lebanese government is drawing the line between privacy and security.

A report by the NGO Social Media Exchange recently highlighted the lack of a legal framework regulating governmental powers when it comes to information sharing.

SMEX researchers said General Security officials cited security concerns following their refusal to provide further information on this topic. The report claims that the lack of a legal framework gives the government a free hand, enabling it to share information with any partnering countries.

This means that Lebanese authorities could share personal information – such as fingerprint, facial recognition information and personal details – not only with the U.S., but also with more controversial countries such as Syria. Currently, General Security collects biometric data of Syrian and foreign nationals as a compulsory step in the issuing of a residency permits.

Since 1999, Lebanon has been a signatory to the Arab Convention for the Suppression of Terrorism, a convention that Amnesty International, among others, claims infringes on human rights. It requires states to make terrorist attacks a criminal offense under domestic law and that the “punishment duly reflects the seriousness of such terrorist acts.”

While protection of personal information is on the contrary not subject to any specific law at present, a new proposal attempting to establish a legal a framework for data collection and use is currently under study.

Last year, the International Aviation Organization announced that it would no longer accept passports that have been renewed by hand as many Lebanese passports are. Passports that have dependents attached, such as the parents who have their children’s affixed, may also no longer be accepted by border agencies.

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