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January 20, 2005

How Much is too Much? Prof Studies Societal Attitudes Toward Biometrics

Fingerprints, retina scans, voice recognition and the geometric shape of a hand. Identity verification gets physical and goes high tech with the study of biometrics.

What used to be the province of James Bond and Arnold Schwarzenegger movies has made its way into private business and the federal government.

Lisa Nelson, assistant professor of public and international affairs, wants to know whether society trusts biometric technology. Is it reliable? And what of privacy concerns and legal implications?

To better understand how secure people feel about the technology, Nelson will soon survey about 3,000 people from around the world who have been exposed to biometrics. She is in the second year of a $3.1 million research project funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, with support from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. She is working with researchers from West Virginia University, Clarkson University, Michigan State University and St. Lawrence University.

Biometrics has been around since the criminal justice system started using fingerprints. These days, biometric identification is used for much more: credit card verification, employee identification, visas, passports and driver licenses. The technology pops up for check cashing at some grocery stores in Texas, which adopted electronic finger imaging in 1995 for identification of recipients of food stamps and other public programs. And the Office of Homeland Security employs biometrics for identification programs at airports and U.S. borders.

“Biometrics is on the brink of being widely deployed,” Nelson said. The Sept. 11 breach of security coupled with soaring numbers of identity theft cases jump-started the development of the technology, Nelson said. She expects biometrics to become more commonplace, particularly in situations where participation is voluntary among private employers and identification programs that speed-up passenger check-in at airports.

As promising as the biometric technology seems to be, people are still apprehensive about its use, according to Nelson. And the government and other institutions are aware of the discomfort. “Some states are in the process of developing biometric legislation – that process goes hand and hand with how to alleviate public concerns. For example, what do you do if you are misidentified while boarding a plane? What will be done? The legislation is at the forefront and will go a long way to alleviate concerns about biometric technology as well as technological safeguards.”

In a pilot survey funded by the Center for Identification Technology Research at West Virginia University, Nelson found the public supports using biometrics to thwart identity theft and insure national security. But people are more apprehensive about new biometric technologies, she noted. For example, the public may be comfortable with fingerprinting but not with iris scans.

And people want their privacy. “The legal doctrine of privacy is not well defined for biometric technology and data in the United States,” she said. The Privacy Act of 1974 governs how federal agencies handle the personal data of U.S. citizens. But there isn’t a comprehensive approach by private industry, Nelson said. “Now there’s lots of information sharing. And there’s a growing concern about how we handle the sharing of information by private industry and the government. We like to have some sort of say about what’s shared and what’s not.”

People fear the misuse of their identification data. For example, if someone applies for a credit card and submits biometric information, will that information be given to a third party? This phenomenon is known as “information creep.” What if the information is stolen or corrupted? Someone could create a “gummy finger” duplicating someone else’s fingerprint.

Besides the public’s fears, there are problems with the technology, according to Nelson.

Accuracy presents one of the major obstacles for the maturity of biometrics. For example, a single type of biometric identification can have a failure rate of 1 percent, according to Nelson. “If you have a data base of one million people – that’s a lot.” But if the scan of a fingerprint is coupled with another form of biometric identification, the accuracy rate increases, she said.

Public adoption of new identification systems would help work out some of the kinks in biometric technology, she said. “There are a lot technological solutions to the privacy concerns, ways to protect data such as watermarking to make sure it’s not corrupted. There are technological and policy solutions to our privacy concerns.”

-Mary Ann Thomas

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