Biometrics: Privacy Concerns?

Francisco A. Laguna & Emily Schneider

Photo Credit: Gerald Nino/CPB via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Credit: Gerald Nino/CPB via Wikimedia Commons

Biometrics used to be the fabric of spy novels, but it is quickly becoming a global reality in both the public and private sectors. In the U.S., law enforcement and government agencies are using biometrics to identify suspects and secure areas from unauthorized personnel, as well as using iris scans and fingerprints to identify terrorism suspects abroad. Commercially, biometric identification systems are being used in banks, gyms, day care facilities and some work places to track and manage clients and employees.  The use of biometric data by the government has yet to be determined in the U.S.; each state has set its own regulations as to what is permitted and what isn’t in terms of biometric data collection, storage and use.

Dark green - biometric passport available to the public; light green - announced future availability (Sept 2011) Photo Credit: Alinor via Wikimedia commons

Dark green – biometric passport available to the public; light green – announced future availability (Sept 2011)
Photo Credit: Alinor via Wikimedia commons

Biometric data is quickly becoming a hot topic for governments around the world. In Ontario, the government is requiring biometric identifiers, such as fingerprints and iris scans, on the visas of citizens from 29 countries as part of a continent-wide effort to enhance border security. In Britain, the government has been grappling with the idea of wide-scale biometric identity registration since 2005 and now uses biometric data on visas for foreign nationals.  In Buenos Aires, Argentina, the Ezeiza and Aeroparque airports have replaced their arrival and departure forms with a new biometric identification system that uses fingerprints and facial features to identify travelers.  In Nigeria, the National Identity Management Commission is proposing to register 100 million Nigerians in its recently introduced biometric database system, which will integrate the data with driver’s licenses, voter’s registration, sim registration, and online banking.  Here, in the US, citizens and non-citizens alike give finger “prints” at immigration upon entering the country.

Perhaps the largest scale biometric data collection by a government is happening in India. The Government of India has amassed a database of 200 million Indian residents’ digital fingerprints, iris scans, facial photographs, names, addresses and birth dates. The Unique Identity Authority of India (UIDAI), the agency that administers Aadhaar, India’s identity program, plans to capture and store the personal information of every one of India’s 1.2 billion residents. Once it is complete, the Aadhaar system is projected to have 10 times the data storage capacity of Facebook.

Photo Credit: Tech. Sgt. Cohen A. Young via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Credit: Tech. Sgt. Cohen A. Young via Wikimedia Commons

Many proponents of the Aadhaar system hail it as benefitting the masses of India. Since there is no standard identity document in India, it is often hard for citizens to take advantage of government programs because they cannot identify themselves. Further, the government still relies on paper records, which makes all government-run programs tedious and susceptible to fraud and corruption.  One of the goals of the Aadhaar system is to solve these issues and alleviate the plight of India’s poor by giving them consistent access to public welfare programs.  Hopefully, implementing the Aadaar system will also alleviate instances of fraud and inefficiency.

This massive biometric database, however, raises questions about privacy, function creep, and information security, which could affect its overall usefulness. We will discuss the possible downfalls and side effects of a biometric identity system like Aadhaar next week.

TransLegal represents cutting-edge technology and biotechnology companies and assists them in understanding the regulatory requirements of operating globally.

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