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Blame Bad Policy, Not the Technology

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Uptake of biometrics in the public sector is increasing despite concern over infringement of privacy and civil liberties, writes Adam Vrankulj

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"Biometrics" and "public sector" are words that react together like petrol and fire. Anybody doubting that should put them together in a sentence at their next dinner party and see what happens.

Biometric identification is not inherently negative, but put in the wrong hands, it can result in a privacy-free society of surveillance and control not unlike Orwell's depiction of The Party and London in 1984. This concern can't be ignored, but it shouldn't dominate the discussion around biometric identification.

Biometrics don't violate privacy, irresponsible public policies do.

On the back of the ambitious Aadhaar programme in India, the government has begun to distribute welfare payments directly into recipient bank accounts, verified with biometric data. This programme has cut out notoriously corrupt middlemen and is also working to ensure that no recipient goes without getting their full entitlement. A challenge of this initiative is that those in the most need often live in areas without electricity and access to banks, though Aadhaar enrolment is making its way into these areas and the government is introducing this initiative in phases.

In Tennessee, the Department of Safety and Homeland Security, along with Morpho Trust USA, recently unveiled self-service kiosks leveraging facial recognition to automate the driving licence renewal process. Kiosks are networked with state driving licence records and use verification software to cross-reference the person posing for a new photo with the existing photo on record.

Programmes meant to expedite travel for pre-approved, low-risk travellers using biometrics have also proliferated over the past several years. For example, the US Customs and Border Protection's Global Entry programme enables participants to present machine-readable passports or US permanent resident cards at the kiosks and verify their identity with a fingerprint scanner.

Biometric passports are also improving travel for people around the world. Many countries have replaced existing passports with new biometric documents or are looking to do so. Biometric passports contain a combination of digital biometric records and have made fraud much more difficult.

The European Union has taken steps to regulate these travel documents. Member states had until August 2006 to ensure that all passports issued contained a chip with the holder's facial image and until June 2009 to ensure that this chip also carried the holder's fingerprints.

In 2012, the International Civil Aviation Organization reported that 93 out of 193 UN member states were then issuing e-passports, with an additional 21 countries ready to deploy the technology within two years.

Ghana, which is in the midst of developing its own biometric passport programme, recently completed a national election using biometric verification devices to register voters and ensure citizens exercised their right to vote. Despite allegations of vote-fixing and missing biometric machines, many attempts to make duplicate votes were thwarted. Following the election, Ghana broke India's world record by having registered and verified approximately 13 million people for an election within 48 hours.

In the Philippines, the number of registered voters for the country's upcoming elections has reached more than 52 million, indicating a greater interest in democratic participation, according to the country's Commission on Elections.

The law enforcement community has also been a major adopter of biometric identification technologies. As one of the earliest adopters, law enforcement agencies have been using latent fingerprints as a basis for suspect identification since the mid-19th century.

In 1981 Jerry Miller was arrested and charged with the kidnapping, brutal rape and robbing of a woman in Chicago. He was only 22 and spent the next two decades of his life in prison. Thanks to DNA testing, Miller was finally exonerated for a crime he didn't commit and another man was implicated in 2007. At the time, Miller represented the 200th DNA exoneration in the United States, a number that continues to grow thanks to scientific innovations in biometric identification.

High costs, along with time-consuming testing and technology, have made DNA analysis inaccessible to many law enforcement agencies to date. But emerging standalone sample-to-answer products, such as IntegenX'S RapidHIT 200 system, claim to offer the answer.

Last year, Florida's Palm Bay Police Department announced a partnership with IntegenX to improve the department's identification capacities, and eliminate wrongful arrests and convictions. Using IntegenX's technology, the department can now produce a full DNA profile in less than 90 minutes, a major improvement from the weeks or months this process used to take.

Though we all fear a dystopian society, in which we're constantly monitored and controlled by Big Brother, it's clear there's a protective and progressive side to our collective and proverbial older sibling we can't deny, and would be well-suited to preserve.

This article was originally featured in Raconteur's special report on 'Biometrics' which published in The Times newspaper on 25th February 2013.

To read related articles, view the full special report here