Asking the Big Questions About Biometrics
December 6, 2006
Filed under Security & Surveillance
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. Governments might seek to push the limits of law, but governments have an ethical responsibility to do more than be legally opportunistic. The use of biometrics uniquely changes the relationship between citizens and the state. Some panel attendees expressed the fear that biometrics will create nations of suspects. Considering ethics in the context of biometric technology forces us to ask the broad question, What kind of society do we want to create? Mr. Baker said that limitations on the use of biometrics and preventing "mission creep" constitute the most important privacy issue. Panel attendees similarly emphasized that because biometrics change the balance of power between government and the individual, more democratic controls must be instituted. The collection and use of biometric data must be transparent. Individuals have a fundamental right to know what biometrics are collected and how they are used. Laws must limit the use of biometrics to select purposes, and prohibit their use for other undisclosed purposes. Laws must allow for redress, whereby citizens may challenge the collection, accuracy and use of biometric data, conclusions drawn from or decisions made based on that data, and the accuracy of records tied to that data.