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Biometrics: Privacy lost?

By Edited May 13, 2015 0 0

Security and Privacy Tend to Clash

Technology has had a significant impact on society. It offers many benefits, but as with anything else, there are also some tradeoffs. Two consistent themes always seem to arise with technology - privacy and security. Many seem to feel privacy as a value is being eroded away as more emphasis is put on security.

Whether or not individual privacy is being whittled away is a current issue being debated throughout society. With terrorism, identify theft and data breaches on the rise, security has also become a vital issue. Treading the line between privacy and security is a fine one to walk.

Enter biometrics.

Are We Ready for Biometrics to Be Mainstream?

Biometrics emerged as a high in-demand technology in today's world several years ago, however, it was some time before the technology was considered to be worthy enough to implement as a viable solution. That time has come. Developers are getting closer and closer to higher degrees of accuracy—along with more ways to use it than perhaps originally envisioned.

Today's society is one where there are strong feelings for the need of heightened security. In response, companies are striving to perfect biometric technology in order to be prepared for the inevitable market demand of these products. Some suggest the time is ready for biometrics to reach the commercial market.  As a result, the realization of biometrics being integrated into daily living is a very real possibility.

Access to the Data Center
Credit: Mariana e Thiago/Public Domain

Security and Privacy at Odds (Again)

The refined development of biometrics has put it back in the spotlight. And, of course, there is some debate to go along with it. Along with questions of how and should it be used.

People tend to value their civil liberties, and many don't want to feel as if these are being infringed upon; others feel security is more important and are willing to make the trade-off in order to feel safe. Security and privacy are two important values, but have a tendency to be at odds, and the space surrounding this fine line contains a lot of gray areas with no clear-cut solution. Ultimately, the issue becomes one of weighing which value is more important. Since values are subjective, in this respect, decision making is difficult when it comes to implementing security strategies when members of society feel as if their privacy is being eroded away.

How Do Biometrics Impact Privacy and security?

Do biometrics impact privacy values and does it really increase security? Perhaps the answer is yes and no. Biometrics, when used with additional authentication methods, is a pretty secure means of protection, but when used by itself, the degree of security become decreased. When evaluating the privacy and security aspects of biometrics, another issue to examine is whether or not a person sharing more of their private information to gain a higher degree of security is worth the potential exposure. If a breach were to occur, much more is at stake.

However, while benefits are understood, some may question once biometric tools are firmly put into practice and become the norm, what comes next? As laws and policies evolve to include this technology, will the whole picture be examined, or even envisioned? At the time, new laws or policies, such as those by school districts4, may address a particular problem, but these often do not consider the full long-term impact on privacy. By the time the realization of privacy erosion became evident, it could very well be too late because the full consequences hadn't initially been taken into consideration when the plan was implemented. It is harder to go backwards, the best way to approach is to be proactive and consider the full picture when making policies and/or plans.


Taking fingerprints
Credit: Kannanshanmugam/Creative Commons License w/Attribution - Share Alike

When making plans to integrate biometric security solutions, decision makers should consider a number of questions. For instance, after biometric information is entered into databases, what is its potential to become vulnerable like any other data? Do the benefits outweigh the cost and negatives against using it? (i.e. public outcry and/or potential risks).

Looking to the Future

Doesn't the public have the right to receive disclosure of where biometrics are being used? (i.e. facial scanning in public areas which are placed into databases). Video surveillance slightly impacts privacy, but when married with information contained in a database, it transforms into another privacy issue entirely. A database union with biometric data perhaps becomes morally questionable when law enforcement takes these measures without informing the public.

"Disclosive ethics takes as its moral imperative the disclosure of this nondisclosure the presumption that politics can operate without regard to ethics as well as the disclosure of all attempts at closing or enclosing that are implicitly part of the design and use of information technology in the pursuit of social order" (Lucas D. Introva).1

People all over the globe are becoming inherently linked with technology, and biometrics is rapidly becoming the next generation of security authentication. The issues associated with it will, ultimately, likely cause conflict in values, most namely privacy, civil liberties and security.

There is often no easy solution when it comes to achieving an acceptable equilibrium between privacy and security in any technological capacity; biometrics is no exception. As every new innovation has historically brought conflict of some sort, today's divergences are becoming more complex since the capabilities of computer and network technology adds a new dimension when compared to traditional conflicts. The key is for society to somehow find a semblance of balance for privacy and security.

Perhaps the question is - can this be done?

Values in conflict create a volatile situation, and it'll be one to be debated for years to come. Or maybe not, as future generations are born into using these technologies, it also could simply be accepted as the norm. In that respect, it could spell the end of privacy. It can be argued in a Facebook-connected world, the world is already accepting the erosion of privacy.

Facebook screen shot

As biometrics technology advances and becomes more included in society, there is a careful balance, one which will need to be maintained. And privacy and security will likely continue to clash.



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  1. Introna, Lucas D. "Disclosive Ethics and Information Technology: Disclosing Facial Recognition Systems." Ethics and Information Technology. 7 (2005): 75-86.
  2. "Unusual Biometric Techniques." Biometrics Institute. 10/12/2013. 26/09/2014 <Web >
  3. Leigh Goessl "Are passwords on the way out? EyeVerify uses 'eyeprint' security." Digital Journal. 22/01/2013. 26/09/2014 <Web >
  4. http://verdict.justia.com/2012/10/09/biometrics-in-the-school-lunch-line "Biometrics in the School Lunch Line: Why Parents Should Be Concerned About the Privacy Implications of This Trend - See more at: http://verdict.justia.com/2012/10/09/biometrics-in-the-school-lunch-line#sthash.KfJ5WY17.dpuf." Verdict: Legal Analysis and Commentary from Justia. 09/10/2012. 26/09/2014 <Web >
  5. "The Dark Side Of Biometrics: 9 Million Israelis' Hacked Info Hits The Web." Fast Company. 24/10/2011. 26/09/2014 <Web >

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