Just Because We Can, Should We?


(Q) I read your recent article on 5G and am wondering how biometrics fits in? A friend works in a related field where the advances he describes are both fascinating and frightening. We don’t always see eye-to-eye on subjects that involve privacy. I would appreciate your thoughts.

(A) Even if we are not familiar with the term, Biometrics, most of us have direct interaction with it on a daily basis. We use it to open smart phones, unlock doors, access medical records, and more. Simply put, biometrics authenticates us. It answers questions like, “Who are you?” and “Are you really who you say you are?”

Biometric data is not new. The earliest accounts of biometric use have been dated as far back as 500 BCE in the Babylonian empire. Always interested in measurements, they developed a system for the classification and comparison of specific body parts. Fingerprint and photographic identification have been used to solve crimes for over one-hundred years. The database grew slowly at first, then accelerated as advances in technology made it more accessible.

One of the many challenges we face today includes issues of privacy and protection. We want our individual right to privacy protected by law. We also want to quickly expose those who would do harm. Problem: Terrorism and cybercrime are daily occurrences; document fraud and identity theft continue to skyrocket. Answer: Biometrics is a suitable means of identifying and authenticating individuals in a (mostly) fast and reliable way using unique biological characteristics.

Biometric data allows a person to be identified based on recognizable and verifiable data. Authentication data currently includes fingerprint registers, facial recognition, hand shape, vein pattern, iris and retina recognition, facial configuration, DNA, blood, saliva, and urine. A biometric template is then stored for future use. And that’s where the problems begin: where should the data be stored? Who should have access to it and under what circumstances?

Historically, the use of biometric data was restricted to military and criminal investigations under a tightly regulated legal and technical framework. That is no longer true. Today, many sectors including banking, retail, mobile commerce, healthcare, and civil identification are all interested in biometric data; they are interested in all of us. In fact, they want to know as much about us as possible – and given recent advances in technology, that is a lot!

You can probably list many of the benefits of biometric data off the top of your head, but there are more you may not have thought of such as a potential solution to the one-person-one-vote issue. And how Live face recognition can find a person-of-interest in a crowd in time to avert a potential disaster in an airport, stadium, or place of worship.

Biometric data is a great way to implement security solutions in an increasingly insecure world. Beyond that, it starts to feel invasive and creepy. For instance, retailers now leverage facial recognition (in-person or online) to identify a premium customer as soon as they enter. Casinos do the same, so do restaurants. And once a person’s characteristics have been identified, they can easily be linked (or sold) to other databases. Using today’s language this is called, function creep, and refers to information that is collected for one purpose but is then used for another. This is how a surprising amount of information finds its way into the hands of third parties and fraudsters.

For better and worse, Science and Technology are today’s ruler gods. We are fascinated by the “gifts” they bring but frightened too. Although widely in use, biometric data is still flawed. The bugs are being worked out in the test kitchen, on us. For instance, a false acceptance rate, or FAR, is the likelihood of a system accepting a wrong person (unauthorized user). A false rejection rate, or FRR, is the likelihood that a system will incorrectly reject access to an authorized user. In certain situations, biometric systems have summoned the authorities.

We could study this subject in more detail, pick it apart, tear it down, say the world is not responsible enough yet, but as your friend indicated to you, we have already gone much further. I wish we had not gone this far, this soon. I wish we had used the world’s finest minds to render every weapon inert. I wish our interests might benefit nature’s issues before our own. I am not for or against technology, or the gods that feed it – but I do wonder who will feed it once it has consumed everything that nature created.

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