23/02/2017 11:49 GMT | Updated 24/02/2018 05:12 GMT

How Well Do You Want The Government To Know You?

Andy Brown via Getty Images

In the age of the "digital citizen," in which people must increasingly interact with Government services online, easily identifying oneself has become hugely important. Which is why biometrics - the analysis of biological and behavioural characteristics - is an area the public sector is looking to see grow in a balanced manner.

It is easy to see the benefits of biometrics as a supplement, and perhaps even a replacement, to traditional identification measures. Biometric factors of identity cannot be lost or forgotten, they are things that everyone carries around with them at all times. No one leaves their retinas at home and your fingerprints are something you are not likely to misplace. Furthermore, they are difficult to copy, forge or share. In the digital age, everyone has a biometric signature that can be effectively used to prove identify and prevent fraud.

In recent years, many Government departments have embraced biometric technology as a means of validating and verifying the identity of citizens. The fingerprint was the first widely adopted biometric factor of identity adopted, but since then the use of biometric identifiers has expanded with facial recognition at airports and the widespread use of DNA in criminal investigations. Today, there are a whole range of biometric factors that can be looked at: palm vein, iris, face, voice, and even behavioural characteristics such as keypad strokes.

What's more, the increase in commercial and consumer applications of biometric identification methods has driven awareness with citizens. The fingerprint authentication feature of recent Smartphone generations is perhaps the most notable example, but the financial services industry has also embraced biometrics as a more trustworthy and frictionless means of authenticating account logins over traditional pins and passwords. We are steadily moving towards a world in which using biometric technology will become a big part of modern life.

What's more, a Government's handling and managing of biometric data relating to their citizens could provide major benefits and improved public services. However, the potential advantages will need to be predicated on trust. How will Government gauge citizen trust and work to increase levels of trust in future?

Advancements in biometric technology are moving at a swift pace. How to implement it safely, securely, and with the best interests of the citizen at heart, will be hot topics of discussion.

The biometric future of public services

Collecting biometric data on citizens could provide major benefits to citizens, improving the efficiency of services and generating savings to the public purse. Biometric use cases can be extended from the spheres of policing and border control to digital service delivery. Facial recognition technology currently used at airports could be used to verify the identity of citizens applying online for passport renewals or driving licences. There are numerous other far reaching benefits too, such as simplifying access to buildings and facilities.

Public Sector organisations that deal with high volumes of citizen enquiries over the phone can benefit from biometric technology as a means of verifying identity. The Australian Tax Office (ATO), for example, recently implemented voice recognition technology in its call centre, allowing them to quickly and easily verify the identity of callers without the need for time-consuming security questions. Not only did the ATO drastically reduce the average handling time for calls, it reduced the risk of identity fraud.

There is also the fact that, as Government grows the amount of biometric data it stores on its citizens, it can expand the big data picture of the general populace to service a number of purposes. A growing number of biometric data points could be included in advanced behavioural analytics and the development of new use cases and algorithms. Consolidating and rationalising separate biometric systems and services could also provide cost savings. Connecting disparate legacy and with new biometric databases is no easy feat however, and secure access control will be paramount.

The need for an open debate

While the idea of prevalent biometric technology sounds positively utopian, in reality, many citizens will be uncomfortable with the idea of Government collecting this kind of information about them. Are we prepared to allow the Government to hold the most intimate data about our biology? How can we be sure that this data will be protected? Are there certain applications of biometric technology that we would not be happy with the Government using?

A balance must be struck between protection and invasion, and Government has had difficulties in finding this trust point in the past. The abandoned National ID Card/National Identity Register programme raised concerns around data security and human rights, and the recently launched Gov.UK Verify online identity service has faced challenges over the implications of making private sector organisations responsible for authenticating identities.

The concern that biometric verification methods pose a threat to individual privacy - the image of a Big Brother state keeping track of its citizens' bodies - will be a difficult one to shake. It is not helped by stories of law enforcement bodies uploading photographs taken in custody, even of individuals not charged with a crime, to national databases and applying facial recognition software. Members of the public are likely to find stories like this intensely worrying, possibly an abuse of the rights of the individual. It becomes even more problematic when one considers the expansion of facial recognition technology that can be used to authenticate citizens remotely, without their knowledge or consent. Some may not be comfortable allowing the Government to store their biometric data if it will be used to covertly identify them later.

There is an argument that biometric technology can be used to protect citizens against these kinds of violations of personal rights, as well as identify theft and fraud. But it is the role of Government to engage with citizens and communicate the benefits of these technologies. They must show that biometrics can have a positive impact on people's lives that outweighs any perceived disadvantages.

Most importantly, Government must guarantee that any biometric data collected on citizens will be managed and utilised in a way that is responsible, proportional and does not infringe of the rights of the individual. There must be a guarantee that there is independent oversight into the use of biometric data and technology. And, most importantly, the public must be assured that their biometric data is secure - a single failure in this regard could destroy public faith for generations. Building public confidence should be a key priority for Professor Paul Wiles, the Government's newly-appointed biometrics commissioner.

Ultimately, it comes down to trust. If people believe that they can trust Government with their biometric data, then they will happily share it. However, Governments must start the conversation and engage citizens in the debate.

Guaranteeing the security of biometric data could be the first step in creating trust.