Biometrics in our Eyes

From KHouse.Org

Saudi Arabian schools will be required to start collecting biometric information from their students during the next two years in order to more thoroughly monitor student attendance. The new mandatory technologies will be introduced in three phases over two years. In the meanwhile, parents in North Adams, Massachusetts have privacy concerns associated with the implementation of a new finger-scanning system in the school cafeterias. The use of biometrics as an identification tool is not new, but the collection of information about people through fingerprints, iris scans, DNA samples, hand-structure and facial recognition pop up everywhere from the bank to Facebook.

In May, Florida Governor Rick Scott signed legislation that bans the state from collecting a variety of private information from students, including biometric data and religious or political affiliation. The legislation requires schools to use student ID numbers rather than social security numbers, and generally seeks to protect student privacy. Motivation for the ban started when Polk County began a program to give students iris scans to make sure they got on the right bus. The school district failed to consult parents first, however, and a negative backlash halted the program and eventually all other use of biometrics in state schools.

In North Adams, Massachusetts, parents are free to opt-out their children, but the school district is moving forward with new finger scanning system in the school lunch lines. School cafeteria workers are among the strongest advocates of finger scanning technology. They argue that students forget PIN numbers and lose their student ID cards, or students can use other students’ PIN numbers to fraudulently buy food. Allowing students to pay for lunch by scanning their index fingers allows the lines to move quickly and efficiently and protects the privacy of students who receive free and reduced-cost lunches.

The identiMetrics technology does not actually store the students’ fingerprints. Instead, it identifies four points on the finger and codes them as binary numbers. Later, when the students scan their fingers, the system recognizes those four points. President and CEO of identiMetrics, Raymond Fry, points out that there is no server space for thousands of digital fingerprints. Once students leave the school, their binary code is deleted. The School Committee sees the technology as a smooth way to eliminate fraud and help kids get through the lunch line faster.

Lunch lines are not the biggest source of concern. Biometrics identification is already all around us. Fingerprints have been used to unlock smart phones or login to laptops for several years, but PayPal has been working with Samsung in 25 countries so that Galaxy S5 users can use their smartphone to pay for goods and services. What’s more, a company called EyeVerify wants to enable cell phone apps to use iris-scanning technology to link to user bank accounts. Scan your iris, check your account balance and make payments.

Those who use Facebook have been subject to face recognition technology for years. When Facebook users post pictures, the system discerns which Facebook friends the pictures contain in order to simplify the tagging process. Our personal identification information can be collected in a wide variety of ways.

RISC-Y Persons

The FBI has been collecting data in a Repository for Individuals of Special Concern (RISC) in order to speed up searches for specific persons. The repository contains information on wanted individuals, terrorist suspects, registered sex offenders and “other persons of special interest” whoever they may be. In early September, the FBI’s Next Generation Identification (NGI) system went live, improving the FBI’s biometric identification services, connecting with a National Palm Print system and an iris-scan repository. The Science and Technology branch of the FBI is working with Homeland Security and Defense on DNA collection. Analysis of video and imagery is also big on the FBI list, especially since video is available nearly everywhere these days.

Biometrics technology offers the potential to simply our lives, to protect our identities and deter fraudsters, but it also exposes us to data collection that may come back and bite us as it erodes our personal privacy.

A Scientific American article last December warned: “Biometrics could turn existing surveillance systems into something categorically new — something more powerful and much more invasive. Consider the so-called Domain Awareness System, a network of 3,000 surveillance cameras in New York City. Currently if someone commits a crime, cops can go back and review sections of video. Equip the system with facial-recognition technology, however, and the people behind the controls can actively track you throughout your daily life.”

The issue isn’t whether biometrics technology is useful; it’s always about whether it might be stolen by some less-than-honest group of individuals. If biometric databases are not hacker-proof, then identification theft of monstrous proportions is possible. Information from fingerprints, iris-scans and face identification could be misused to spy on private citizens — and the legal system has hardly caught up to the large strides made by technology companies. Proper protections must be put in place to safeguard our privacy. In the meanwhile, if we like, we can check our bank accounts the old-fashioned way.

Related Links

  • Biometric Security Poses Huge Privacy Risks
    — Scientific American
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