Once the stuff of spy movies and science fiction, biometric systems have become a reality and have found their way into various areas of our world, including government, business, law enforcement, and the consumer market. At first glance, the advantages of biometric security are obvious. Physical characteristics like fingerprints, eyes, and even voice are unique and cannot be easily lost, stolen or duplicated. No longer would one have to memorize a complicated string of characters to gain access to their work center or financial records.
However, upon closer scrutiny, the ethical implications and potential for serious problems become evident. If implemented on a larger scale, how and under what conditions would the databases from which these systems draw be populated? What if this data were compromised? Once implemented, where would the evolution of such technology takes us? These are the types of questions that lead me to believe that that morality concerns suggest that large-scale biometric security systems are potentially dangerous.
What Is Biometrics?
So what does “biometrics” mean? If we break it down, the root “bio” means “life” (in this case the meaning is more like ‘living’ body) and metric is “measurement.” So biometrics is the study of measurable biological characteristics.
For our purposes, it’s the measurement of the body and how it relates to security systems. Different parts of the body like the eyes, fingerprints, and even voice carry identifiers that are unique to each individual. According to studies, biometrics as a scientific discipline dates back to the 19th century; however, there has been considerable progress made since then.
There are reports of a Next Generation Identification (NGI) which uses biometric data to aid in law enforcement activities. Used by the FBI, this billion dollar program will use iris scans, DNA analysis, voice identification and the ability to recognize a person even if they aren’t looking at the camera. Several states have already began populating their databases for this and wide spread implementation could happen as soon as 2014.
So how could this pose a problem in the future? First, a distinction must be made here between a biometric security system and a system that incorporates biometric security measures. The latter might be a system that uses some aspect of biometrics to supplement its security. A good example would be an ID card with a picture and a fingerprint. Both modes (visual recognition and biometric verification) supplement each other.
However, in a true biometric-only system, biometric data is the only criteria against which access is either granted or denied. No back-up form of verification would exist because this would defeat the purpose. From a security stand point, if there were some sort of work-around in case of authentication failure (PIN, password, etc.), then it might compromise the integrity of the system, negating the uniqueness of the biometric data.
One of the moral issues that could arise from this type of all-or-none system is the issue of forced participation due to wide-spread acceptance. In the last 20 years, the PC has integrated itself into our society almost to the point where a basic comprehension is required to function in some regards.
Much like the PC, if a large-scale biometric system were to be integrated into, let’s say, banking, there may come a point at which acquisition of one’s biometric data for verification purposes might be necessary to accomplish any banking activities. In a system with no secondary methods of security, there would be no choice, and thus participation would be necessary. At this point, we would be dangerously flirting with the 4th Amendment.
The 4th Amendment states:
“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
Another potential major issue revolves around a concept that Mordini and Massari call “function creep.” It’s described as “the expansion of a function or system where data collected for one specific purpose is subsequently used for another unintended or unauthorized purpose.”
What if the aforementioned biometric banking system decided to do something else with this vast database of everyone’s biometric data besides use it to verify customers’ identity? Might that be something that a marketing firm might want to get ahold of?
Even worse, what if the NGI program performed so well that not only the FBI used it but local law enforcement began using it as well? And if it performed well here, why not use the biometric data to aid in prosecuting non-violent crimes. What if from there biometrics slipped into crime prevention? The thought of a world where one might walk around with little to no anonymity or privacy would definitely challenge today’s ethics.
My last point involves the possible compromise of biometric data. Already in our society we are seeing the effects of identity theft and what it can do to our lives which now rely so heavily on credit scores, online shopping, electronic verification and the like. The good thing is that, with a little work, these things can be restored should one’s identity become compromised.
However, in a biometric system, it would only take one time and you could possibly be compromised forever. PINs can be changed, passwords reset, but your fingerprint will always be your fingerprint. One of the advantages to biometrics is that the data is not easy to replicate. However, it is not impossible, and as I stated it would only need to occur once. How could one be reintroduced into the system if the culprit were never caught? This is precisely why biometrics’ greatest strength is also its greatest liability.
Questions still remain as to whether large-scale inception of biometric security systems within multiple disciplines is a good idea. These systems offer no alternative and no failsafe on which to rely should the unforeseen happen. Forced membership, possible misuse, and compromise issues are all ethical points to consider when deciding whether or not large-scale biometric security systems should eventually take over existing systems. Serious discussion and foresight must be used to identify potential issues not yet considered, and to have policies in place which take into consideration the privacy of those who would use these systems.
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