Privacy Issues Surrounding Biometric Technology


The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center have provoked in-depth discussion and study of existing security measures, their deficiencies, and how to enhance security to prevent similar terrorist attacks from occurring in the future. Biometric technology has risen to the top of the list as a possible solution. The government is not the only entity exploring biometric security systems. The financial services industry see biometrics as a way to curb identity theft. Biometrics are intrinsic physical characteristics used to identify individuals. The most commonly used biometric is fingerprints but others include, handprints, facial features, iris & retinal scans, and voice recognition.

Soon after 9/11 there were calls for the issuance of national ID cards containing biometric information on an RFID chip implanted on the card. The argument is that national ID cards will increase security by identifying individuals with their unique fingerprints which are much more difficult to counterfeit than standard photo ID cards. There is also a movement toward biometric passports. It looks like biometric passports are coming soon. National ID cards may follow.

Biometric identification is nothing new. Humans have been identifying other humans biometrically since the beginning of time. You recognize people you know by their facial features, their voice, and other biometric features. What’s new is introducing technology into the mix that compares a given biometric with a stored database of biometrics to verify the identity of an individual. An individual place their finger on a fingerprint scanner and the image is compared with the database to verify the person’s identity. Promising as it is, biometric technology has not been without hiccups but biometrics are advancing quickly and becoming more and more prevalent in security systems.

Fingerprints are the most commonly used biometric identifiers. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) conducted a study that showed single fingerprint biometric systems had a 98.6 percent accuracy rate. The accuracy rate rose to 99.6 percent when 2 fingerprints were used and an almost perfect 99.9 percent when 4 or more fingerprints were used. The study results show that biometric identification is nearly perfect which is not surprising given the uniqueness of human fingerprints.

The US-VISIT program, which is an acronym for United States Visitor & Immigrant Status Indicator Technology, currently requires foreign visitors to the US to present a biometric passport containing 2 fingerprints and a digital photo for identification purposes before being granted admission to the U.S. Of course the biometrics are compared against a vast network of government databases full of known and suspected terrorists and other criminals.


On the surface biometric technology may sound like a panacea but it’s use has raised significant privacy concerns that need to be addressed. Here are six major privacy concerns: storage, vulnerability, confidence, authenticity, linking, and ubiquity.

Critics wonder how the data will be stored and how vulnerable it will be to theft or abuse. Confidence issues center around the implications of false positives and false negatives. Can the biometric data be used to link to other information about the individual such as marital status, religion, employment status, etc.? And finally ubiquity. What are the implications of leaving electronic “bread crumbs” to mark a trail detailing every movement an individual makes?

Until these issues are addressed, privacy advocates will lead a charge to resist biometric technology claiming it as a way for the government to assume a “Big Brother” type of rule as described in George Orwell’s novel 1984. But protest as they may, it’s likely national security concerns and the ability of biometric systems to enhance the security of US border and possibly prevent another major terrorist attack will win out over privacy concerns.

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Thomas Boggo


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