Biometrics: Hold On, Chicken Little


At the bank. At the mall. They are watching you. The question isnot, Am I being watched? It is, Who is doing the watching?

In the wake of the terrorist attacks, we are hearing more aboutbiometric technologies that can potentially pick a terrorist out ofa crowded room, thus providing a measure of security in a climateof fear. Biometrics refers to advanced identity verificationtechniques that use personal characteristics such as fingerprints,facial patterns, and so forth to identify individuals. Thesefeatures of the technology cause some to raise the cry of BigBrother.

In the months before the attacks on the World Trade Center andthe Pentagon, privacy, particularly as it applied to commercialtransactions on the Internet, was an issue of national concern. Infact, an outcry against the mammoth bookseller Borders over plans toimplement a biometric identification system (to controlshoplifting) led to the company to shelf the effort.

Fast forward to the United States, post-9/11: Security andsafety from terrorists has become the number one concern, andbiometric companies are scrambling to get their securitytechnologies in the hands of the FBI and airports. The biometrictechnologies that have been used by casinos across the nation tocatch cheating card players are now being deployed in airports andjails nationwide.

Many people are rightly suspicious of the new role thattechnology will play in preventing future terrorist attacks.Innocent individuals might find themselves under the stare of the"eye in the sky." But we should not eliminate the technology thatis in place - a technology that promises beneficial applications,such as locating a lost child, preventing against fraud, andferreting out terrorists.

Biometrics has rapidly moved from a technology of the future tothe forefront of the battle to ferret out terrorists andproactively protect America. Visionics, one of the leaders in thefield of biometrics, has made a name for itself by offering itsface-scanning technology free to the FBI. While both the ACLU and HouseMajority Leader Dick Armey (R-Tex.) contend that the technologyprovides little payoff in actually apprehending criminals, itstands to reason that the kinks will be worked out if there is asocietal demand for the technology. In fact, Visionics contendsthat its surveillance system successfullyidentified an individual wanted by authorities in the UK.

While many civil libertarians balk at the idea of thistechnology, there are some who realize that the problem is not withthe technology itself but with the people who control it. As Prof.Dorothy Denning points out in her piece "WhyI Love Biometrics", the "liveness" (faces, eyes, voices, etc.)of biometric technologies means that the user will not have toremember the many secret passwords that most of us use on a dailybasis.

More important than the implementation of the technology itselfmay be the simultaneous introduction of guidelines to limitgovernment's exploitation of the technology, particularly withrespect to halting impulses to broaden surveillance againstordinary individuals. Of imminent concern is the desire of variousstategovernments to implement biometric technology into Departmentof Motor Vehicle identification, in effect, turning this into anational identification system. There are many dangers inherent ina national identification card, better explained in detail in arecentop-ed by my colleague Robert Levy, but suffice it to say thatthis is one of the risks of putting biometric technologies in thehands of overzealous government officials.

Technology is a tool to assist us in restoring safety to asociety that has been violated. But it is just that - a tool. Justas a hammer will not pound a nail unless swung by a human hand,technology alone is not the antidote to our ills. But with amodicum of restraint on the part of legislators and a degree ofunderstanding of the post-9/11 world by civil libertarians,technology can be an important component in countering the terrorthat has gripped our society.

Lucas Mast

Lucas C. Mast is a research assistant in Telecommunications and Technology Studies Department at the Cato Institute in Washington. To subscribe, or see a list of all previous TechKnowledge articles, visit