Is the Use of Biometrics an Invasion of Privacy?

BOSTON (05/08/2000) - At its core, biometrics is a very effective authentication mechanism. It is a secure, private and very complicated type of password that cannot be lost, stolen or shared, ensuring that only you have access to your personal data.

Opponents of biometric technology frequently cite "Big Brother " fears, postulating that the government might monitor your behavior, purchasing patterns or movements. Fortunately, several inherent characteristics of biometric technology preclude the types of abuses that privacy advocates fear.

For example, biometric technologies don't store pictures of fingerprints, iris patterns or recordings of voice prints. Instead, they convert distinctive features of these bodily characteristics into very small templates, 1/100th to 1/500th the size of the original data. It is impossible to recreate the original fingerprint from a finger scan template because the template is based on a variable number of extracted features.

Biometric devices require live submissions. This limits the possibility of latent prints being fed into nonforensic biometric systems. Also, most biometric vendors encrypt biometric data transmission between a peripheral and PC, and the template is encrypted when stored. All primary biometric technologies, including finger, face, hand, iris, voice and signature recognitions, share these protections.

There are two broad categories of biometric usage: public sector (federal and state governments) and private sector. Biometric usage in the public sector, in such programs as entitlements and driver's license issuance, is designed to prevent fraud. Because such fraud prevention programs are, by definition, not implemented on a voluntary basis, states take caution to ensure that there is no sharing of information between agencies. It is critical that legislation be enacted to guarantee the enrollees' data is not used improperly.

In the private sector, use of biometrics is a voluntary matter. As with the public sector, biometric information may not be shared between companies or databases. It is in the best interest of the biometric industry to advance strict laws on the protection, transmission and privacy of such data.

Ironically, the biometric industry and privacy advocates are on the same side of most of the privacy debate. Both are wary of government misuse of biometric technology, and both fear the unchecked, unauthorized trading of databases of private information.

Fortunately, understanding what biometric technologies are, how they work, and what they can and cannot do, helps clarify that biometric technology increases, not decreases, personal privacy.

Nanavati is a partner with International Biometric Group, a consultancy in New York. He can be reached at snanavati@biometricgroup.com. Michael Thieme, IBG senior consultant, contributed to this column.

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