Fingerprints have started being digitally stored on biometric passports but no decision has been taken on whether this procedure will be adopted for the new ID cards, according to a Communications Ministry spokesman.

All new biometric passports will contain two fingerprints from the holders but current valid passports do not have to be replaced until they expire, it was announced during a press briefing yesterday.

"These biometric passports are being used across the Schengen area to strengthen security and be one step ahead of identity theft," the spokesman said.

He added the data would be collected by around 30 certified passport office staff members but would not be accessible to anyone.

"The data will never be transported or passed on to third parties. Every stage of the process is automatically audited and digitally sealed." In other words, the data will simply be stored on individual passports so it can be matched with a fingerprint check at travel borders. It cannot even be passed on to local or foreign police.

The system will put Malta in line with the 2004 EU regulations and was approved by the Data Protection Commissioner.

According to the ministry, this procedure will not involve any extra cost to the passport holder. It will also have no effect on the US Visa Waiver Programme or the ability to travel in the Schengen area of Europe with just a valid ID card.

Some people will be exempt from the fingerprinting process, namely children under 12 and those who suffer from a permanent or temporary condition which makes the process impossible.

According to the spokesman, children's fingerprints are not yet fully developed, while certain conditions could prevent someone's fingerprints from being recognisable, such as in the case of people who used sandpaper so frequently their fingerprints were non-existent.

Asked about the new biometric ID cards, which have been a long time coming, the spokesman said the system would be developed by the end of this year and the ID cards should be renewable before the next election in 2013. However, discussions are still ongoing over whether these would contain fingerprints as well.

For more information on biometric passports call freephone 8007 2386.

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