Facial recognition is one type of biometric data. It's being used more and more to identify criminals and deter fraud. As one Massachusetts driver learned the hard way, facial recognition isn't fool-proof. His license was suspended because a facial recognition system flagged his picture as matching someone else's. That set off a fraud trigger. It took him 10 days to restore his license. He's suing Massachusetts for the hassle.
Law enforcement isn't stopping there. It's moving from comparing photos taken in administrative matters like driver's license renewals to collecting and analyzing images captured randomly in public. Images taken by public surveillance cameras can be compared against a database of photos to detect known criminals or wanted suspects. The technology is advancing rapidly. What needs to move in step are procedures and limits to ensure that mistakes are minimized and harm to innocents reversed promptly.
Everyone's unique, and we all have special characteristics to prove it, like fingerprints and DNA. They're called biometric identifiers or biometrics for short. They provide the perfect way to guarantee someone's identity. Or do they?
The US Department of Homeland Security has been using biometric identification for several years. Through the US-Visit program, DHS collects digital fingerprints and photographs to track when foreign nationals without a US passport or visa enter the US. However, there's no biometric exit tracking, and there may never be any.
DHS reportedly won't create a program for fingerprinting foreign nationals when they leave the country, even those who register with the US-Visit program. Instead, it plans on using biographic information - matching the names of foreign visitors with airline manifests and other immigration documents they got when they entered the country. Costs and logistical problems are cited as the reasons for going with the old-fashioned paper trail.
The problem is a federal law requiring DHS to come up with a plan for an automated biometric entry and exit system. It seems a battle between the agency and Congress is brewing, just as the immigration reform debate continues to grow.
Some Like It
While biometrics lose traction in the federal arena, the science is gaining fans in the private sector. For instance, a San Francisco fitness gym began a voluntary program where customers can access the gym by using their fingerprints and key codes instead of carrying membership cards. Customers like it because it's quick and easy. The gym likes it because it saves them money and stops non-members from sneaking onto the gym with someone else's card.
Other private businesses use similar technologies. Cashiers in grocery and other retail stores often need to scan their fingerprints to log into cash registers. Fingerprint pads are also used to restrict access to areas of office buildings. Like the gym, fans point to cost savings and security as the major benefits of biometric IDs.
Biometric IDs aren't universally embraced. Some members at the San Francisco gym opted not to use the fingerprint system because it seemed to strange to them. Privacy and security advocates have some beefs, too. They worry that biometric data won't be stored securely and could be stolen by identity thieves. They worry, too, that if more and more public places use fingerprint pads or other biometrics, it becomes easier to track where people are going and what they're doing. It's the classic Big Brother argument.
They urge anyone asked to set up or use a biometric program to think carefully about it. It's good advice. Before signing up, ask about the security features of the system. What's being stored, for how long, and where? What happens if I stop being a customer, or if I find a new job in a different building? Will my information be deleted? When?
Right now biometric IDs aren't widespread, but that's almost certain to change. Think about the science now and do some research to prepare yourself for the day when, quite possibly, your fingerprint will be required for just about anything you may want to do.
Questions for Your Attorney
- Can companies sell biometric data without the consent of customers?
- How can I make sure a business erases my biometric data after it's no longer needed?
- Can a state pass a law barring private companies from using biometric IDs for their customers or employees?