U.K. marketFingerprint scheme at Heathrow's Terminal 5 challenged

Published 24 March 2008

BAA’s plan to require fingerprints from both international and domestic passengers who use the terminal may violate the U.K. Data Protection Act; Thursday’s opening of the £4.3 billion terminal may be delayed

Plans to fingerprint millions of passengers at Heathrow’s new Terminal 5 could be illegal and have been challenged by the U.K. data protection watchdog. The Information Commissioner’s Office warned airport operator BAA that the security measure, designed to stop terrorists getting into the country, may breach the Data Protection Act. The Telegraph’s Nick Allen writes that the move led to fears the planned operational opening of the £4.3 billion terminal on Thursday could be delayed causing flight chaos. Terminal 5 was officially opened by the Queen on 16 March. BAA said it was in negotiations with the Commissioner over fingerprinting but insisted there was no prospect of the row delaying the opening.

Under the plan all four million domestic passengers using Terminal 5 annually will have their fingerprints taken when they first go through security. They will then be checked again at the gate. BAA said the measure was required because Terminal 5 will host domestic and international passengers who will be sharing lounges and public areas after checking in. Without fingerprinting, terrorists, criminals, and illegal immigrants could arrive at Heathrow on a transit flight then exchange boarding passes with a colleague in the departure lounge and join a domestic flight to enter the U.K. without being checked by immigration authorities. Deputy Information Commissioner David Smith questioned why BAA needed to use fingerprinting at Heathrow when other airports like Gatwick and Manchester rely on photographs to ensure security at their common departure lounges. He said photographs were “less intrusive” and BAA’s case for fingerprinting at Heathrow had not been made. Smith said: “If we find there is a breach of data protection legislation we would hope to persuade them to put things right. If that is not successful we can issue an enforcement notice. If they don’t comply, it is a criminal offence and they can be prosecuted.”

A leading barrister has already informed BAA that he will refuse to give his fingerprints, describing the process as an “Orwellian” abuse of civil liberties. Nigel Rumfitt QC, a specialist in serious crime including terrorism, said it was a move toward a “database state” and Britain would become a nation that “restricts the internal movement of its citizens”. BAA said it would destroy information from fingerprinting within 24 hours, in accordance with the Data Protection Act, and it would not be passed on to police. A spokesman said: “It does not include personal details nor is it cross-referenced with any other database.” The airport operator said that once common departure lounges had been decided on, fingerprinting was the “most robust” way of ensuring security. The Home Office said BAA was required to ensure that arrangements at Terminal 5 did not breach border security but there was no requirement for that to involve fingerprinting. A spokesman said: “Our primary concern is that the UK border is secure and we won’t allow BAA to have a common departure lounge unless they ensure the border is secure. They presented us with this plan, which we are happy secures the border. The design of the plan is a matter for BAA.”