THE DATA TRAIL: You Might Be Forgiven for Thinking Biometrics Starts with Fingerprints and Ends with Iris Recognition. However, Rapid Development in Analysis Technologies Means the Field Can Extend to Your Retina's Blood Vessels, Face and Hand Geometry, the Veins in Our Palms and Even Your DNA. but What Exactly Is Happening with All This Information and When Does Necessary ID Data Cross the Line into Personal Intrusion?

By Rowe, Mark | Geographical, July 2018 | Go to article overview

THE DATA TRAIL: You Might Be Forgiven for Thinking Biometrics Starts with Fingerprints and Ends with Iris Recognition. However, Rapid Development in Analysis Technologies Means the Field Can Extend to Your Retina's Blood Vessels, Face and Hand Geometry, the Veins in Our Palms and Even Your DNA. but What Exactly Is Happening with All This Information and When Does Necessary ID Data Cross the Line into Personal Intrusion?


Rowe, Mark, Geographical


Imagine a world in which we travel seamlessly from one country to another, physical borders essentially made redundant by an all-powerful chip in our mobile phones. Inside that chip - or less fashionably, in our passports - will be our identity, a virtual 'us': a bundle of biometric, biographic and behavioural data ranging from fingerprint and iris to voice recognition, even the way we walk, the shape of our wrists and finger bones.

This is a future as depicted by biometrics experts; and it, or at least the technology that will enable it, is either with us already or imminent. Following in its slipstream are huge opportunities and challenges for both high-income countries and the developing world.

SECURE SYSTEMS

Biometrics are a means to identify individuals based on distinguishing physical characteristics. Algorithms and computer processing power now have startling abilities to compose an identity from behavioural traits such as shopping habitats, our use of household items such as fridges and televisions, they way we type or how we scroll up and down a computer screen. 'Modern digital biometrics are different from old databases, they are far more precise,' says Alan Gelb, of the Centre for Global Development and co-author of Identification Revolution, Can Digital ID be Harnessed for Development?

In the developed world, official identification systems are a fact of life: biometrics are mostly used for law enforcement, to counter fraud and to control access to goods and services, buildings and travel across borders. The reality is that biometrics just work better at identifying us. When US border agencies tested recognition capabilities of their staff, border guards typically correctly identified just 60 per cent of faces presented to them. Biometrics routinely score above 90 per cent while the very best fingerprinting services, used by the US Department of Homeland Security can identify more than 99 per cent of fingerprints correctly.

Biometrics have also been taken up with enthusiasm by governments in developing nations, along with humanitarian and development agencies. Here, the use of biometrics is seen as both an instrument and a goal of development in parts of the world where there is an identity gap. According to the World Bank, an extraordinary one billion people lack an identity.

Biometrics, it is argued, can help the many millions of people who lack official forms of ID, such as birth certificates, national ID cards and voter cards, and enable them to access basic rights and services. 'There's a growing realisation that people are advantaged in many ways by the ability to be identified with a specific characteristic of themselves,' says John Mears, vice-president and specialist in biometrics, identity management and forensics for Leidos, a US company that provides related services to US, UK, Australian and Middle East governments. 'It can provide special benefits and can reduce the friction either financially or physically as they travel through life.'

The case for biometrics is that they can help developing nations leapfrog the long and complicated process of establishing the ID systems deemed necessary to improve people's lives and make government systems work better. In doing so they will bypass the red tape of paper-based systems from which the developed world is only slowly disentangling itself. 'What is the alternative?' asks Gelb. 'Biometrics help provide tools to authenticate people, they are pretty indispensable to most developing countries because they don't have registries in place. Malawi has no registry of births or deaths. If you put a system in place for that do you want one with a high degree of accuracy or an old paper one that is probably deficient?'

Biometrics play two roles: to underpin a strong national ID system and to verify somebody's identity. Though separate, these functions inevitably become entwined. In the case of humanitarian needs, organisations such as the UNHCR have turned to biometrics to deal with relief situations. …

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THE DATA TRAIL: You Might Be Forgiven for Thinking Biometrics Starts with Fingerprints and Ends with Iris Recognition. However, Rapid Development in Analysis Technologies Means the Field Can Extend to Your Retina's Blood Vessels, Face and Hand Geometry, the Veins in Our Palms and Even Your DNA. but What Exactly Is Happening with All This Information and When Does Necessary ID Data Cross the Line into Personal Intrusion?
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