Privacy Advocates in Illinois Fight Companies’ Biometrics Use

unauthorized gathering of citizen data leads to class-action lawsuits in midwestern state

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Biometrics are unchangeable physical characteristics used for tracking purposes. Fingerprints, retinal scans, and other individual traits that are with us for life may be used for identity verification. Illinois says biometrics can violate privacy.

Eye scanner concept, digital scan
Biometrics involves measurable physical characteristics that identify an individual through fingerprint, eye, or voice patterns. Photo By ra2 studio / Shutterstock

In Illinois, citizens can sue companies for unauthorized collection of biometric data. In 2019, the Illinois Supreme Court decided that plaintiffs in class-action lawsuits didn’t have to prove harm to collect damages from related claims. A Reuters investigation found evidence that businesses had “collected, tagged, and categorized biometric data gleaned from millions of unsuspecting Americans.”

On the one hand, biometrics data can be used to quickly identify criminals on the run. On the other, the technology could violate civil liberties and be used to track citizens’ whereabouts without cause. In his video series The Surveillance State: Big Data, Freedom, and You, Professor Paul Rosenzweig, Professorial Lecturer in Law at The George Washington University Law School, explained several kinds of biometrics.

Fingerprints and Irises

“Fingerprint recognition is probably the most widely used and most well-known biometric,” Professor Rosenzweig said. “Fingerprint recognition relies on features found in the impressions made by the distinct ridges on the fingertips. Today, fingerprint images are scanned, enhanced, and then turned into templates, [which] are saved in a database for future comparisons using optical, silicon, or ultrasound scanners.”

According to Professor Rosenzweig, the health care industry has used fingerprint identification to give access to users, yet has maintained security levels that give patients a feeling of confidence and comfort. He said this challenge is critical because greater security usually means limiting access.

Iris recognition technology relies on the distinctly colored ring that surrounds the pupil of the eye,” he said. “Irises have approximately 266 distinctive characteristics, including things like a trabecular meshwork, striations, rings, furrows, a corona, and freckles. Retinal scanning, by contrast, looks at the blood vessel patterns in the iris—so it’s the same idea, implemented in a slightly different form.”

When using iris identification, a database will use more than 170 characteristics to build a template. The image of the iris is captured on camera and then analyzed to determine its unique features. The United Arab Emirates implemented iris scanning technology at international airports, preventing the re-entry of 347,019 deportees in the first 10 years of its use.

Faces and Voices

Facial recognition technology uses distinct features on the face, such as nose width or mouth shape, in order to build its template.

“Typically, facial recognition compares a live person with a stored template, but it’s also been used for comparison between photographs and templates,” Professor Rosenzweig said. “Facial recognition is the biometric system that can best be routinely used covertly, since a person’s face can often be captured by video technology. In other words, you may never know if a photo is being taken of you and compared to some database.”

This is the crux of the privacy debate in biometrics that Illinois takes so seriously. While the issue may be at a stalemate during the coronavirus pandemic, during which many people wear masks while in public, it’s never far from mind.

Finally, vocal recognition is also used—but how?

“Voice recognition technology identifies people based on vocal differences that are caused either by differences in their physical characteristics—like the shape of the mouth—or from speaking habits—like an accent,” Professor Rosenzweig said. “Such systems capture samples of a person’s speech as scripted information is recorded multiple times into a host recordkeeping system.”

That speech, he said, is known as a “passphrase.” A passphrase gets converted into digital form and distinctive features of the speech, such as the pitch, cadence, or tone, are extracted to create a template.

Knowing that fingerprinting has been used for over a century, it’s unlikely that biometrics is going anywhere, and the privacy debate surrounding it has existed for nearly as long. With digitally captured information, though, everything old is new again.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily