Last week the Department of Homeland Security sponsored the International Conference on Biometrics and Ethics. Attendees included U.S. and foreign representatives of government agencies, public interest organizations, academic institutions, and industry. On November 28, I attended the speech by Stewart Baker, DHS Assistant Secretary for Policy, and the panel on "Privacy and Ethics Under Normal and Extraordinary Circumstances." There was an unchallenged assumption that using biometric identifiers allows for better identification, and better identification ensures more security. However, several cautionary points were made.
Mr. Baker said that because such bodily indicators (fingerprint, handprint, iris, retina, facial features, gait, DNA) are immutable, a person can be easily identified in all circumstances. Records tied to a person via biometrics become very difficult to "shake." Some panel attendees agreed that biometrics should not be used to create a universal unique ID precisely because they are so permanent. People have a right to create different social identities for themselves, and even be anonymous. However, countries like Mexico and the UK are tying biometric data like DNA to their ID cards.
Panel attendees noted how gathering biometrics uniquely threatens an individual's "dignity." People literally give up pieces of themselves, which is more threatening and intrusive than revealing a name, address or SSN -- labels that can be changed. Thus the concept of ethics is even more appropriate in this context. Ethics is different than law. It provides a more expansive framework of inquiry, necessarily considering dignity, and how humans can be free to flourish.
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