Human Bar Code: Monitoring Biometric Technologies in a Free Society

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Biometric technologies such as voice prints,retina and iris scanners, face-recognition cameras,digitized fingerprints, and even implantablechips containing personal information can benefitus. Such technologies will find their way intocell phones and mobile computers, car doors,doorknobs, and office keys. They can bolsteronline commerce, locate a missing child, andtransmit medical information to doctors. Theypromise increased security by preventing identitytheft.

But no one wants to be treated like a humanbar code by the authorities.

What are the benefits and concerns surroundingthe further deployment of biometric identificationtechniques into our lives? Do they promisenew levels of physical security and secure commerce--or do they threaten fundamental values ofprivacy and liberty? What are the distinctionsbetween governmental, commercial, and privateuse of biometric technologies?

Biometrics range from completely involuntaryto potentially involuntary to completely voluntary--in decreasing order of risk. The mostpressing threat to liberty is an all-inclusive data-basemandated by government--a national identificationcard with biometric identifiers. Suchan ID will increase unwelcome surveillance, willblur the distinction between public and privatedatabases, and will undercut a presumptive rightto maintain anonymity. The ID would devolveinto a general law enforcement tool having nothingto do with response to terrorism.

A less sweeping biometric database would containcriminals and suspects but not the generalpopulation. Individuals would be observed, butpresumably only to see if they matched a facealready in the database.

Allegedly, the collection of information pertainingto criminals will have already taken placeby way of proper legal procedures. Nevertheless,many observers doubt that governments can betrusted to discard incidental data collected oninnocents. Because the deliberate identificationand tracking of individuals using biometrics canconstitute an unreasonable search, stringentFourth Amendment safeguards are critical.

The challenge of the biometric future is toprevent mandatory national IDs, ensure FourthAmendment protections with respect to publicsurveillance, and avoid the blurring of public andprivate databases. Private industry must generateits own information, for purposes limited byconsumer choice and consumer rejection.Privacy, security, liberty, and even authenticationtechnology itself will be all the better for it.

Clyde Wayne Crews Jr. is director of technology studies at the Cato Institute.