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Russia has announced plans for a national electronic fingerprint system for banks. Jamaicans are required to scan their thumbs into a database before qualifying to vote in elections. In France and Germany, tests are under way with equipment that puts fingerprint information onto credit cards. Many computer manufacturers are considering including biometric readers on their systems for security purposes. The most controversial form of biometrics — DNA identification — is benefiting from new scanning technology that can automatically match DNA samples against a large database in minutes. Police forces in several countries including Canada, Germany, and the United States of America have created national DNA databases.

Samples are being routinely taken from a larger group of people. Initially, it was only individuals convicted of sexual crimes. Then it was expanded to people convicted of other violent crimes and then to arrests.

Now, many jurisdictions are collecting samples from all individuals arrested, even for the most minor offences. Former New York city mayor Rudolf Giuliani even proposed that all children have a DNA sample collected at birth. In Australia, the United Kingdom, and the US, police have been demanding that all individuals in a particular area voluntarily provide samples or face being considered a suspect. US attorney general John Ashcroft has testified that he has asked the Federal Bureau of Investigation to increase the capacity of its database from 1.5 million to 50 million profiles.

At the same time, DNA data has been used as exculpatory evidence in many criminal trials.

Most countries around the world regulate the interception of communications by governments and private individuals and organizations. These controls typically take the form of constitutional provisions protecting the privacy of communications and laws and regulations that implement those requirements.

There has been great pressure on countries to adopt wiretapping laws to address new technologies. These laws are also in response to law enforcement and intelligence agencies pressure to increase surveillance capabilities. In Japan, wiretapping was only approved as a legal method of investigation in 1999. Other countries such as Australia, Germany, New Zealand, South Africa and the United Kingdom have all updated their laws to facilitate surveillance of new technologies.

The US government has been at the forefront of promoting greater use of electronic surveillance. Former FBI director Louis Freeh travelled extensively around the world, promoting the use of wiretapping in newly democratic countries such as Hungary and the Czech Republic. At the same time, the US has led world efforts to ensure that all communications technologies have built-in surveillance capabilities and to prohibit the manufacture and use of equipment that cannot be eavesdropped upon. The US has also been working through international organizations such as the organisation for economic cooperation and development, G-8 and the council of Europe to promote surveillance.

It is recognized worldwide that wiretapping and electronic surveillance is a highly intrusive form of investigation that should only be used in limited and unusual circumstances. Nearly all major international agreements on human rights protect the right of individuals from unwarranted invasive surveillance. Nearly every country in the world has enacted laws on the interception of oral, telephone, fax and telex communications.

In most democratic countries, intercepts are initiated by law enforcement or intelligence agencies only after it has been approved by a judge or some other kind of independent magistrate or high level official and generally only for serious crimes. Frequently, it must be shown that other types of investigation were attempted and were not successful

There is some divergence on what constitutes a “serious crime”, and appropriate approval. A number of countries including France and the United Kingdom have created special commissions that review wiretap usage and monitor for abuses. These bodies have developed an expertise in the area that most judges who authorize surveillance do not have, while they also have the ability to conduct follow up investigations once a case is complete. In other countries, the privacy commission or data protection commission has some ability to conduct oversight of electronic surveillance.

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