Biometrics are no longer stuff of science fiction. Fingerprint and iris recognition technologies are something that we have all encountered in our lives so far. And, increasingly, governments and their military are using the technology for their internal security. So, what is it about biometrics that make them useful? And, why should we care?
Science Fiction, Not
At one point in the movie Minority Report, the lead character—Chief John Anderton—is on the run. He needs to change his identity. But he can’t, at least not easily, as the central government has everybody registered by a unique identifying characteristic—the pattern of blood vessels in their eye. This technique, known as iris recognition, is actually in its growth stage today. Because your eye pattern is unique and immutable, the government sees this as a way of conclusively identifying malefactors. Citizens see it as a way of exercising control.
This is not the stuff of science fiction. During the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. forces used iris-scanning technology as a sort of digital filing system on civilians and others they encountered. Anderton’s fiction is today’s reality. The only way for John Anderton to avoid this surveillance is to change his eyes, which he does, and that seems pretty extreme—and it’s beyond the realm of the possible today—but it gives you a sense of both the power and the peril of biometric identification.
This is a transcript from the video series The Surveillance State: Big Data, Freedom, and You. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Why Are Biometrics Important?
Why biometrics are interesting comes down to the problem of establishing one’s identity. The problem came into stark highlight after the September 11 attacks. The government’s comprehensive review identified a number of gaps in America’s security architecture, including our inability to know who was who. The Florida drivers’ license picture of Mohammed Atta has become an iconic symbol of the insecurity of our identification apparatus. Misidentification is a critical and endemic problem, and that’s why biometrics are increasingly important.
In a post-9/11 world, we want to link the biographic information we have available to us about risks associated with an individual—be it risk of financial fraud, abuse of eligibility for benefits, or being a potential terrorist—to a verifiable biometric characteristic. That is, a physical characteristic that is impossible to change.
Learn more about testing psychochemical weapons.
Uses of Biometrics
Consider some of the uses to which a verified biometric identity can be put: getting through the airport is easier for trusted travelers; establishing access-control checkpoints to let people into buildings and computer systems—or to keep them out; verifying credit and other consumer behavior, thereby pinpointing or streamlining retail transactions, reducing fraud, and resulting in lower fees; eliminating voting fraud and ending the voter ID debate; verifying age and legal authorization to drive, or vote, or drink alcohol; and so on.
Biometrics are actually among the oldest of new technologies. They began with fingerprints early in the 20th century and, today, include more novel ideas, like gait recognition.
Biometrics for Verification
Now, biometrics can be used in two distinct ways—for verification and identification. When a biometric system is used to verify whether a person is who he or she claims to be, that verification is frequently referred to as one-to-one matching.
Almost all systems can determine whether there is a match between the person’s presented biometric, and a biometric template in a database, in less than a second.
Learn more about how DNA redefines medicine and our future.
Biometrics for Identification
Biometrics for identification, by contrast, is known as one-to-many matching. In the one-to-many matching framework, a person’s biometric signature—whether it’s an iris or a fingerprint—is compared with all the biometric templates within a database.
Now, there are also two different types of identification systems for this framework—positive and negative. Positive systems expect there to be a match between the biometric presented and the template. These systems are designed to make sure that a person is in the database.
Negative systems are set up the opposite way—to make sure that a person is not in the system. Negative identification can also take the form of a watch list, where a match triggers a notice to the appropriate authority for exclusionary action.
How Effective Is the Tech?
Neither system generates perfect matches, or exclusionary filters. Instead, each comparison generates a score of how close the presented biometric is to the stored template. The systems compare that score with a predefined number or with algorithms to determine whether the presented biometric and template are sufficiently close to be considered a match.
Most biometric systems, therefore, require an enrollment process, in which a sample biometric is captured, extracted, and encoded as a biometric template. This template is typically then stored in a database against which future comparisons will be made.
When the biometric is used for verification—for example, access control—the biometric system confirms the validity of the claimed identity. When used for identification, the biometric technology compares a specific person’s biometric with all of the stored biometric records to see if there’s a match.
Thus, for biometric technology to be effective, the database has to be accurate and reasonably comprehensive.
Common Questions about Biometrics
Biometrics are important as they solve the problem of establishing one’s identity.
Biometric identity can be used to make getting through the airport easier for trusted travelers; establishing access-control checkpoints to let people into buildings and computer systems—or to keep them out; verifying credit and other consumer behavior, thereby pinpointing or streamlining retail transactions, reducing fraud, and resulting in lower fees; eliminating voting fraud and ending the voter ID debate; and verifying age and legal authorization to drive, or vote, or drink alcohol.
Biometrics can be used in two distinct ways—for verification and identification.