Privacy issues related to biometric technology

The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center have sparked in-depth discussion and study of existing security measures, their shortcomings, and how to improve security to prevent similar terrorist attacks from occurring in the future. Biometric technology has risen to the top of the list as a possible solution. The government is not the only entity exploring biometric security systems. The financial services industry views biometrics as a way to curb identity theft. Biometrics are intrinsic physical characteristics that are used to identify people. The most commonly used biometrics are fingerprints, but others include handprints, facial features, iris and retina scans, and voice recognition.

Shortly after 9/11 there were calls for the issuance of national identification cards that contained biometric information on an RFID chip implanted in the card. The argument is that national ID cards will increase security by identifying people with their unique fingerprints, which are much harder to counterfeit than standard photo ID cards. There is also a move towards biometric passports. It looks like biometric passports are coming soon. National ID cards can follow.

Biometric identification is nothing new. Humans have been biometrically identifying other humans since the beginning of time. You recognize people you meet by their facial features, voice, and other biometric characteristics. What’s new is the introduction of technology into the mix that compares a given biometric against a stored biometric database to verify an individual’s identity. A person places their finger on a fingerprint scanner and the image is compared to the database to verify the person’s identity. As promising as it is, biometric technology has not been without its setbacks, but biometrics is advancing rapidly and becoming more and more prevalent in security systems.

Fingerprints are the most widely used biometric identifiers. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) conducted a study that showed that single-fingerprint biometric systems had an accuracy rate of 98.6 percent. The accuracy rate increased to 99.6 percent when 2 fingerprints were used and a near perfect 99.9 percent when 4 or more fingerprints were used. The results of the study show that biometric identification is close to perfect, which is not surprising given the uniqueness of human fingerprints.

The US-VISIT program, which is an acronym for United States Immigrant and Visitor Status Indicating Technology, currently requires foreign visitors to enter the U.S. Of course, biometric data is checked against a vast network of databases full of terrorists and other known and suspected criminals.

On the surface, biometric technology may sound like a panacea, but its use has raised significant privacy concerns that need to be addressed. Here are six main privacy concerns: storage, vulnerability, trust, authenticity, linkage, and ubiquity.

Critics wonder how the data will be stored and how vulnerable it will be to theft or abuse. Trust issues focus on the implications of false positives and false negatives. Can biometric data be used to link to other information about the person, such as marital status, religion, employment status, etc.? And finally the ubiquity. What are the implications of leaving electronic “breadcrumbs” to mark a trail detailing every move an individual makes?

Until these issues are addressed, privacy advocates will lead a charge to resist biometric technology, claiming it is a way for the government to take over “Big Brother”-type rule as described in George Orwell’s novel 1984. But as much as they protest, it is likely that national security concerns and the ability of biometric systems to enhance the security of the US border and possibly prevent another major terrorist attack will win out over privacy concerns.

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