The ethics of biometrics:
the rights and wrongs
of new ID cards technologies

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The advance of biometrics is an outcome of globalisation. Commerce, migration and trusted exchanges of all types of information now take place globally on a daily basis. Transactions and mobility have increased the need for individuals to prove their identity and to be sure of the identity of others, meaning more effective forms of identification need to be developed.

Biometrics analyses characteristics such as fingerprints, eye scans and signature dynamics to identify individuals. But while some are convinced that the technology is a key component of security, others have ethical concerns about the storage of personal data and its possible abuse.

The BITE (‘Biometric Identification Technology Ethics’) project set out to promote research on the bioethical and ethical implications of emerging biometric identification technologies and initiate an international, public debate on the subject. The project brought together nine partners, including bioethicists and representatives of the biometric industries, from five European countries, including four EU Member States.

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Finger prints, iris recognition and body odour

Biometric technologies confirm a person’s identity by examining a biological feature, then matching it with a digital file containing those exact characteristics. Features can be physical, such as hand contours or retina patterns, or they can be behavioural, such as voice modulation or keystroke typing rhythms. Some are rather unusual; among the attributes being tested for individuality are knuckle creases, body odour and acoustic head resonances.

Applications of the technology include identifying known criminals, restricting access to secure premises, proving the identity of benefits claimants and checking the identity of voters at polling booths.

BITE’s objective was to establish a forum for public conversation on the ethical and policy issues raised by these technologies. The project kicked off with a series of meetings with experts from industry, academia and the policy world. Coupled with reviews of the scientific evidence, this helped the project partners prepare for the next stage of the project – an online public consultation.

The consultation covered the legal, ethical and social implications of biometrics. It attracted over 5 300 responses from universities, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), large companies and government bodies in Europe and beyond. 72 % of responses came from men, and the majority came from people aged between 25 and 50.

The outcomes of these activities contributed to the production of a report which is helping to set the agenda for public and political discussions on biometrics in the EU and elsewhere. The report was presented at a public conference, organised by BITE, held in Brussels.

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Giving the faceless a face?

The project investigated the bioethical and ethical issues arising from emerging biometric identification technologies, devoted particular attention to the use of biometrics in the biomedical field, studied the value of applications alongside the potential for misuse, and assessed the impact of biometrics on vulnerable groups.

A complex concern identified by BITE is that of loss of identity. Some worry that today’s citizens will become biological data, as name, age, address and other traditional identifying characteristics are replaced by biometrics which could be used by companies and governments alike. On the other hand, many people in developing countries do not possess any documents with which they can prove who they are. These people are already vulnerable on account of their poverty, and the fact that they are unable to provide evidence of their identity makes it difficult to empower them.

Biometrics and medicine

Digitalising patient records makes healthcare more efficient, reduces fraud, lessens the likelihood of medical errors and saves lives. But digitised only medical records, but also a patient’s name, date of birth and sometimes social security number.

If biometric identification technologies were used, these other identifying data would not be needed and access to archives of medical records could be better controlled. This would significantly reduce the risk of medical identity theft. The project partners believe that given the sensitive nature of medical data, the use of biometrics is justified in this case.

Biometric identification could also save lives by ensuring that medical conditions or allergies are known in an emergency. However, severe pain and serious injuries may prevent some patients in emergency wards from providing biometric characteristics. Systems must ensure that these issues do not delay treatment.

Avoiding stigma and discrimination

Another ethical concern identified by BITE is the risk of discrimination facing various groups, including the elderly and disabled. Fingerprints become less readable with age, while those who are visually impaired or have a limb missing may not be able to provide the requisite biometric data. For systems to be truly non-discriminatory, it is important that developers and operators consider the needs of those who will experience difficulties at the earliest stage of the design cycle, conclude the BITE partners.

Fail-safe security?

While there is a clear argument in favour of using biometrics for security purposes, BITE points out that there are ways to cheat the technology. Artificial devices could be used for mimicry, and the reliability of data is dependent upon the source that provided it.

It seems that the general public shares the project partners’ concerns. The online consultation illustrated three principal demands: more research on the ethical, social and policy implications of biometrics; increased understanding of the ethical context of biometric technology; and the involvement of technologists and engineers in the ethical debate on surveillance technology.