Biometric Identification: Friend or Foe?

What is Biometric Identification?

A fingerprint on keyboard; Image: Pexels, all rights reserved

Biometric identification is defined as the process of recognising an individual using their physical and behavioural measurements. Biometrics are effective for identification as features such as fingerprints are universal, robust to change and most importantly, unique (Smith, Mann & Urbas, 2018, p. 20).

The first use of biometrics date back to prehistoric times where palm and footprints found to mark territories and individualise art. In the 19th century, fingerprints were first used to identify criminals from crime scenes and by the 1920s fingerprint identification was adopted globally by law enforcement and primarily stored using a paper system (Kindt, 2013, p. 17:20).

However, it was not until the digitisation of biometric data that wide-scale identification was possible. With the ability to easily store and compare biometric data, identification occurred fast and reliably. Contemporary uses include DNA evidence in criminal investigations and facial recognition for anti-terrorism systems in airports (Muller, 2010, p.32).

Aadhaar: India’s Biometric Scheme

Aadhaar, uses 1 photograph, 10 fingerprints and 2 iris scans to produce a personal 12-digit identifier code issued by the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI). This biometric data is authenticated and stored by India’s Central Identities Data Repository and has become the world’s largest biometric database.


Aahaar is used in a variety of services from education, disabilities services to opening bank accounts as outlined below.

Biometric Identification in the Australian Context

Pro: Promotes Inclusion and Access

Proving your identity is the first step in accessing any welfare system. Biometric identification, compared to hard-copy documentation such as birth certificates and passports, are more resistant to replication, document fraud and hacking. In addition, Van Hamme and colleagues (2018) denote that, not only do biometrics optimise security and privacy but is easy and intuitive to use, making it suitable for widespread adoption.

Gelb and Metz (2017, p.77) argue that India’s Aadhaar allowed for transparent and reliable delivery of welfare. Most notably, those needing welfare often times experience extreme hardship, thus faster speed and approval rates were invaluable.

Prior to Aadhaar, an easily lost health-card was needed to access food rations, however, biometric identification allowed citizens multiple modes to prove their identity. As biometric identification is mainly machine operated, ration shops were able to be spread from large cities to more rural locations increasing access to these subsidies.

“Ration cards have barcodes…often they are copies, and ration dealers claim false sales as a result. With Aadhaar, there is no risk of this, because control will be biometric” (Masiero, 2016)

Applied in the Australian context, Commonwealth Ombudsman (2014, p.40) reported that Centrelink, a welfare system for Australians, processing delays and rejections often involved re-identification issues. In particular, updating these documents at a Centrelink branch is time-consuming and, if these documents are expired, are expensive to replace.

Biometric identification does not expire, thus both streamlines identification process and allows citizens and institutions benefit from increased efficiency. Moreover, biometric identification is neutral, regardless of race, religion and even language resources are accessible and is an important consideration given the multicultural nature of Australia.

Pro: Aware of  Security Concerns

The problem with Australia digitalising identity using biometric identification surrounds data security — in particular, who owns and controls it. Nelson (2017) critiques the lack of protective legislation during the genesis of Aadhaar, in the reoccuring security breaches of citizen’s personal data.

Unlike India, in Australia the sharing and storage of biometric data are protected by the Privacy Act 1988. In addition, privacy is optimised as institutions, whether from the public or private sector, will need to undergo accreditation against Digital Transformation Agency (DTA) Framework before any data, not only biometric, will be collected.

Importantly, protection of data requires political priority for the nationwide integration of biometric identification.

Angus Taylor Minister for Law Enforcement and Cybersecurity in the Turnbull Government expresses “A successful digital identity has to be driven by the user, controlled by the user and managed by the user as they see fit.” and emphasises a multistakeholder approach to data collection “…this means having a federated decentralised architecture.”

A prime example is the development of Digital ID by Australia Post, which aims to use facial recognition to provide digital identification through an app which replaces physical driving licenses and passports for use within Australia (Whitepaper, 2016).


Also using facial recognition software, GovPass aims to digitalise identity for governmental services such as access to MyGov, Centrelink, ATO and Medicare. GovPass boats privacy and safety:

“1. Limiting the collection, use and disclosure of personal information to a narrow purpose
2. Minimising collection and retention of information and keeping data stores separate
3. Giving users choice of how they verify their identity
4. Giving users control through consent and transparency”

Having autonomy of data and decentralised system for data collection and storage is imperative for the success of biometric identification. These frameworks act as preventative measures, which prevent the misuse of citizen data in political, economic or social gain.

Con: Issues with Nationwide Digitalisation

On the flip side, to reap the innovative benefits of biometric identification, all citizens will need reliable access to the internet.

In light of Aadhaar, Masiero (2016) describes digitisation of identity may inadvertently discriminate towards groups which need help. For example, in some Indian rural villages there is no stable connection to electricity, as a result, subsidies cannot be claimed on food due to technology failure. Despite a relatively higher internet and electricity penetration in Australia, there is still a technological divide.

Masiero (2016) also posits that groups such will illness such as leprosy and deformities will not be able to use biometric identification due to changes or absence of fingerprints and facial structure as a result severely affects accuracy.

Anecdotal reports show that “teachers who work for a government school in Delhi. They spend their spare time working with children [homeless] in the slums, helping them get ID so they can enrol in school” However, above problems results from Aadhaar being the only source of access to these services.

With previously discussed Digital ID and GovPass, prospective uses are mainly for identification purposes. However, if only one type of biometric data is collected for identification, this can severely disadvantaged groups with disabilities and deformities. Moreover, implications are

on any group in Australia is heavily dependent on the systems which rely on it.

Con: Political Discourse

The national digitisation of identity using biometric identification is hotly debated. Despite Australia’s awareness of data misuse concerns discussed above, the ever-changing political climate is cause for concern, particularly regarding attitudes towards data protection.

One cause for concern is proposed law “Data Sharing and Release Legislation” which argues for the implementation of a centralised database for all government amenities, with the ability to override ‘conflicts’ with the Privacy Act 1988.

“New data sharing and release arrangements will benefit Australians by streamlining the way public data is shared and released within government and with trusted users”

However, these are potentially indicative of data misuse and corruption.

How will Biometric Identification affect us?

O’Sullivan’s (2013) research denoted that everyday internet users are indeed concerned about security and privacy with the online use of biometric identification. However, despite these reported concerns, O’Sullivan found the most participants online behaviour did not reflect this with

“…25% switched off security settings to improve performance and 46.6% would register their details regardless of any privacy concerns to purchase the item they require”

With the move towards biometric identification, both users and regulators of the internet need to take more proactive security measures.

Overall, the implementation of biometric identification in the Australian context is still up for debate. It has the potential to revolutionise Australian welfare systems and increase efficiency in the workplace and everyday life. However, biometric data is subject to political and personal misuse and may inadvertently marginalise groups with are unable to use these systems. If robust systems for citizen data protection and security are a prioritised and the use of biometrics do not entirely replace paper documentation or hinder access to services then the nationwide implementation of biometric identification is recommended.


Dixon, P. (2017). A failure to “Do no harm” — India’s aadhaar biometric ID program and its inability to protect privacy in relation to measures in europe and the U.S. Health and Technology, 7(4), 539-567. doi:10.1007/s12553-017-0202-6

Gelb, A. (2017). Identification revolution. Washington DC: Brookings Institution Press.

Kindt, E. J. (2013). Privacy and data protection issues of biometric applications: A comparative legal analysis. Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands.

Media release: Commonwealth ombudsman. (2014). MediaNet Press Release Wire

Müller, B. (2010). Security, risk and the biometric state: Governing borders and bodies. London;New York;: Routledge.

O’Sullivan, D. (2013) Factors affecting the adoption of online biometrics by the internet user community. University of Dublin

Smith, M., Mann., M., Urbas., G (2018) Biometrics, Crime and Security. London;New York;: Routledge.

Van hamme, T., Rimmer, V., Preuveneers, D., Joosen, W., Mustafa, M. A., Abidin, A., & Rúa, E. A. (2018). Frictionless authentication systems: Emerging trends, research challenges and opportunities.

Hypertextual References

Australia – internet penetration 2018 | Statistic. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Biron, C. L. (2018, September 14). Inclusive or invasive? Digital ID stirs debate. Retrieved from

Department. (2015, July 28). Privacy Act – Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC). Retrieved from

Grayson, I. (2017, April 09). Digital ID must be driven and controlled by users: Angus Taylor. Retrieved from–angus-taylor-20170407-gvgbgu

King, R. (2015, December 01). World’s largest biometrics database leverages Big Data architecture. Retrieved from

Ramachandran, A. (2018, February 13). What is it like to live in the world’s biggest experiment in biometric identity? Retrieved from

Suidgeest, J. (n.d.). GovPass – Privacy by design. Retrieved from

Thomas, J., & Wilson, C. K. (2018, September 18). Australia’s digital divide is not going away. Retrieved from

White Paper (2016, August). A frictionless future for identity management. Retrieved from

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science/arts undergrad | neuroscience, statistics & chinese studies | self-proclaimed culinary master

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