Biometric identification is often a topic of great controversy. Whilst the idea of phones that come equipped with facial recognition software or the ability to access our medical health with the swipe of a fingerprint all seems very exciting, there is also a lot of uncertainty and fear surrounding the emergence of methods of biometric identification.
Globally, the use of biometrics is becoming more and more prevalent, supported by the argument that biometric identification offers far greater security and is an ideal method of organising and accounting for populations, especially in developing countries. On the other hand, there is concern about the potential for error with biometrics as well as the infamous debate about whether these forms of identification are an invasion of our privacy.
In Australia, the gradual shift towards biometric identification is undeniable and after weighing up the advantages and the disadvantages, it is definitely a concept that we should adopt. However, it is crucial to consider the sensitivity of the topic and ensure that strategies are put in place to guarantee the safety of personal data and people’s right to privacy.
What is biometric identification?
Biometric identification is defined as being a way of verifying the identity of a person based on their physiological or behavioural characteristics (Wayman et al., 2005).
A video by SBS News notes that methods of biometric identification can come in a variety of different forms including fingerprinting, eye scans, facial recognition and monitoring behavioural characteristics.
A brief history of biometric identification
Biometric identification is often considered to be a fairly new concept however this is not necessarily the case. Many scholars argue that this form of identification has been used by humans for centuries. One of the oldest and most common examples of a characteristic that is used for recognition is the face – humans have used always used facial recognition as a way of identifying the familiar and unfamiliar (Ashbourn, 2000).
One of the first uses of biometric identification can be traced back to early Egyptian history, where traders were identified by their physical descriptions (Wayman et al., 2005). The absence of individual’s documentation meant that workers were taking other people’s identities to receive higher wages. Realizing this, those in charge began taking notes about height, weight, hair colour and other distinguishing characteristics as a way of identifying their workers (Ashbourn, 2000).
In the 18th century Bertillon, a French criminologist, founded a system of classification known as the anthropometric system (Wayman et al., 2005). This system used physical measurements of body parts to produce a detailed description of a prisoner and is renowned for being the first real form of biometric identification. Methods of biometric identification continued to evolve from here on, as it was discovered that fingerprints had patterns that were unique to an individual and this led to the creation of automatized systems and databases, like the AIFS, that were able to store and match biometric information (Ashbourn, 2000).
An example of biometric technology. Image: Raza Bajwa, all rights reserved.
What are the advantages?
One of the main arguments supporting biometric identification is that it gives an identity to those who are currently unknown. An example of this is the Aadhaar system in India, which was initially set up as a solution to combatting national criminal activity. The government established the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), and individuals were issued a 12-digit identification number based on their biometric and demographic data (Verma, 2016). Due to this system, almost all Indian citizens regardless of their class or status, are accounted for by the government. Mordini & Massari argue that “biometrics could contribute to give a face to the multitude of faceless people who live in developing countries” (Mordini & Massari, 2008, p. 497). The majority of developing countries do not have identification systems, meaning that many individuals are unable to prove their identity, therefore do not have access to numerous vital services. In his report on the Aadhar, Zelazny notes that the key purpose of the UIDAI was to “ensure that people would not be denied services because they did not have an ID” (Zelazny, 2012). Thus, biometric identification can be viewed as a means of promoting equal rights.
Another significant advantage of biometric identification is that it offers far more security than traditional approaches of identification. Jain et al., explain that the problem with using possessions as a form of identity, is that possessions can be taken (Jain et al., 2006). Passwords can be lost. IDs stolen and replicated. Biometrics, on the other hand, “cannot be lost or forgotten… they are difficult for attackers to forge and for users to repudiate” (Prabhakar et al., 2003, p.37). In 2016, Hungary combined traditional forms of identification with biometric identification by creating ID cards with an RFID antenna and a memory chip, which stores fingerprints, social security numbers and tax ID numbers (Csaba, 2017). It is argued that this combination of identification methods is the most advantageous as it guarantees that personal information cannot be fabricated or stolen (Mordini & Massari, 2008).
The benefits of the Aadhaar Card. Image: Sanju Dangar, all rights reserved.
What are the disadvantages?
One of the main concerns with biometrics is the difficulties associated with replacing biometric information and the potential for errors. In the event that a person’s biometric information is compromised, it is more or less compromised forever. If a person loses their credit card, the bank can easily issue the user a new card with a new number. However, a user only has a limited number of biometrics and they are not so easy to replace (Prabhakar et al., 2003). The risk of biometric identification errors is also a significant concern. In a study done by SBS News, it became evident that facial recognition technologies had difficulty recognising people of different ethnicities, particularly individuals with darker skin. The authors also note how “facial identification systems have rather poor accuracy, especially in environments with cluttered backgrounds and varied lighting conditions” (Prabhakar et al., 2003, p.40). People being incorrectly identified or mistaken for someone else can have serious consequences, especially in the law enforcement sectors.
Methods of biometric identification technology. Image: M2SYS, all rights reserved
The privacy debate
It would be impossible to assess the value of the biometric identification system without discussing the issue of privacy. Often any form of biometric based technology is considered to be a threat of an individual’s right to privacy as it perceived as being very invasive. There are situations where biometric identification can put people in potentially life-threatening situations. Individuals who are “legally maintaining aliases (say, for safety reasons) could be identified based on their fingerprints” (Prabhakar et. al., 2003, p.40). It’s also possible to acquire an individual’s biometric sample, such as their face, without their knowledge. As a consequence of this, those who many need to remain anonymous could be refused their right to privacy by biometric recognition (Prabhakar et. al., 2003). On a more day-to-day basis, the majority of people are concerned that methods of biometric identification will be linked to their personal data or allow them to be tracked.
However, a number of the privacy problems associated with biometric identification have been exaggerated. Wayman et al., argue that “biometric measures themselves contain no personal information. Hand shape, fingerprints, or eye scans do not reveal name, age, race, gender, health or immigration status.” On the other hand, more traditional forms of identification reveal much more personal data like an individual’s full name, address, gender, height and weight (Wayman et al., 2005, p.15). In the Indian Aadhaar system, when users verify an individual’s identity against their fingerprint and Aadhaar number, the UID database will return either a yes or no answer and does not provide any other personally identifying information (Gelb & Clark, 2012). Therefore, methods of biometric identification are not always as invasive as they are made out to be.
Biometric identification in an Australian context
Although we’re not yet at the same level as India and the Aadhaar, Australia has begun to implement methods of biometric identification. An article by the Australian Government outlines Australia’s current uses of biometrics. The Department of Immigration and Border Protection collect fingerprints and facial images of visa applicants and immigration detainees. Australia has also recently bought in facial recognition technology at airports, known as SmartGates that speed up the arrival process for ePassport holders. There are also numerous banks that are introducing biometric technologies onto their mobile apps, which enable users to log on using their voices or fingerprints. However, there are still numerous areas that biometric identification could be introduced in Australia.
The potential implications
With the undeniable shift towards biometric identification in Australia, we need to be aware of the potential implications for internet users. These include:
- Lack of anonymity for individuals
- Concerns surrounding surveillance and privacy invasion
- Potential biometric data breaches
- Those whose biometric characteristics have been impaired risk feeling left out or not being included
Whilst the adoption of biometrics is still a double-edged sword for many, overall the benefits outweigh the concerns and it is because of this that we should continue to introduce methods of biometric identification in Australia. Biometric identification offers higher levels of security and guaranteed access to fundamental services. Although there is still uncertainty surrounding the impact on privacy, with the right regulations, biometrics has the potential to change how our world operates for the better.
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Australian Police Force. (2018). Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS). Retrieved from https://www.australianpolice.com.au/dactyloscopy/automated-fingerprint-identification-system-afis/
Csaba, O. (2017). The Past, Present and Future of Biometrics. Annals of the Faculty of Engineering Hunedoara, 15(2). 163-168. Retrieved from httto://www.proquest.com
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Prabhakar, S., Pankanti, S., & Jain, A. (2003). Biometric Recognition: Security and Privacy Concerns. IEEE Security & Privacy, 99(2), 33-42. doi: 10.1109/MSECP.2003.1193209
SBS News. (2018). Special report: Is new facial recognition software racist? Retrieved from https://www.sbs.com.au/news/special-report-is-new-facial-recognition-software-racist
SBS News. (2018). What is biometric identification and how does it work? Retrieved from https://www.sbs.com.au/news/what-is-biometric-identification-and-how-does-it-work
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Zelazny, F. (2012). The Evolution of India’s UID Program: Lessons Learned and Implications for Other Developing Countries. Washington DC: Center for Global Development. Retrieved from https://www.cgdev.org/publication/evolution-india%E2%80%99s-uid-program-lessons-learned-and-implications-other-developing