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  CONTROL TECHNOLOGIES  -  The boundaries of surveillance

How can security for all be reconciled with the freedom of the individual? And how should new control technologies be used while respecting the fundamental demands of privacy? Partners with different sensitivities and interests – researchers, industrialists, and NGOs – have come together on the BITE project to look at developments in biometric technologies and the issues they raise.

The use of biometric technologies to identify illegal immigrants has become international practice. It is a form of ‘globalisation’ that raises a number of ethical issues – especially that of the protection of personal data – which the BITE project is now studying.
The use of biometric technologies to identify illegal immigrants has become international practice. It is a form of ‘globalisation’ that raises a number of ethical issues – especially that of the protection of personal data – which the BITE project is now studying.
"Biometry was seen as one of the principal technological responses to 11 September,” believes Emilio Mordini, coordinator of the European project BITE, launched in 2004. “Biometric technologies suggest that new methods of identification will permit surveillance based on a complexity of elements, providing a more flexible solution than traditional centralised control systems.” This is a very different scenario to that of Jeremy Bentham’s panoptic device, made famous by the analyses of Michel Foucault, or Orwell’s ‘Big Brother’. Rather, it resembles the Minority Report,(1) an urban environment packed with virtual technologies from which there is no escape for the hunted individual.

Authenticating is not identifying
It is the moral boundaries to this technological surveillance that interest the nine BITE partners, the key question being whether or not the use of biometrics is compatible with respect for the individual. Emilio Mordini believes it is – immediately explaining that there is biometrics and biometrics and that it is the objective and possible use that matters. In short, whether the aim is to authenticate or to identify. 

During identification processes (who is this person?), the individual is determined by comparing his or her biometric characteristics with data recorded in a database. It is thus a question of comparing one individual with a great many individuals. Such a system is sophisticated and costly. Authenticating processes (is this the person?), which have the major benefit of preserving anonymity, are much less complex. It is a ‘one-on-one’ comparison of the biometric data recorded on the card presented with the known biometric data of the individual who is supposed to be its holder. The cardholder must be authenticated as its legitimate owner. It is a process sought by certain patient groups, for example, who would like to be treated without being identified. 

Invisible fingerprints
"This method is already used, in particular in New York, in a care programme for Aids patients. Anonymity is important as it seems to us that the medical field could be one of the most sensitive in regard to misuse of these data. It is conceivable that elements of this kind could be used by employers or insurance companies. This issue is all the more crucial as technologies could, at some point, include DNA analyses or brain scans,” believes Emilio Mordini. At that point we would no longer be characterised by external measurements – fingerprints, iris images, etc. – but by an impalpable element, intrinsic to the individual and therefore totally impossible to forge. 

The BITE partners are also looking at the use of biometrics for certain sections of the population, as is already the case for some asylum-seekers without identification documents. That would make the divide – an identity divide as well as a social or economic one – between two classes of citizens all the more visible, with holders of a traditional identity card on the one hand and holders of a card ‘stamped’ with biometric data on the other. 

It is hardly surprising that the use of biometric technologies is increasing, especially as the cost is steadily falling. A high-definition scanner for fingerprints that would have cost €3 000 five years ago costs no more than around €100 today. This technology is already used on some vehicles that only unlock their doors and start up after ‘recognising’ their owner. That is why, in Malaysia, car thieves have been known to cut off the car owner’s finger… 

(1) Short story by Philip K. Dick adapted for the cinema by the director Steven Spielberg.

  • BITE [ http://www.biteproject.org/ ] (European Project on Biometric Identification Technology Ethics)
    This very interesting site includes reports on the various meetings of the nine partners, on the subject of biometrics and genetics, biometrics and privacy, biometrics and migrants, the European industrial context, and future technologies. Their reflections will be the subject of democratic debate, the conclusions of which will be presented in the final project report aimed at making the decision-makers – especially politicians – more aware of the issues raised by biometric technologies.