Examining the Costs and Benefits of Biometrics

surveillance tool

What are biometrics?

Biometrics are a means of identification of humans. These digital identifiers are unique to each individual and can be used to grant access to private networks. Commonly used biometric identifiers include our fingerprints, voice, typing cadence, and other physiological or behavioral traits. Biometrics provide higher levels of security to data, systems, and other private networks. These identifiers are more efficient and effective than standard security implementations such as passwords and codes.

How is it used?

This form of identification plays a significant role in daily life. It is widely used in many situations, including unlocking a phone, airport security, criminal investigations, and more. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security utilizes biometric data on a large scale, filtering out illegal travelers, enforcing federal laws, and verifying the credentials of visa applicants. To date, their system has documented 260 million unique identities and processes over 350,000 cases per day. An individual may encounter biometric identification when using facial recognition or fingerprinting software to unlock their phone. Most devices nowadays including laptops, phones, and tablets come equipped with high tech identification tools such as facial recognition technology, iris scans, and fingerprinting.

Ethical Concerns

While these features offer convenience and efficiency which entice customers, activists argue over the ethics of storing biometric data. According to Andy Adler, a professor specializing in biometrics at Canada’s Carleton University, “[Biometric] systems are also vulnerable to all of the traditional security threats as well as all sorts of new ones and interactions between old and new ones.” The usage of biometric software introduces new threats of identity theft or financial crime, as hackers target and steal biometric information for filing for credit, taxes, insurance scams, and more.

Discrimination

Biometrics like facial recognition disproportionately misidentify people of color, women, and children. According to a study conducted at MIT, facial recognition technologies misidentify darker skinned women one in three times. This high error rate can lead to false accusations in criminal investigations, putting communities of color at risk. For example, it was recently discovered that a Black man, Robert Julian-Borchak Williams, was wrongfully accused of shoplifting $3,800 worth of goods from a store in Detroit. When law enforcement officers identified a Black man in a red cap in a surveillance video, facial recognition software falsely identified Williams as the suspect. He was arrested and jailed for over 24 hours. His case was brought to the attention of the public as a result of a hearing in Detroit focused on facial recognition and the increasing rates of false positives faced by darker-skinned people.

While these issues persists, biometric identifiers like facial recognition should not be widely used. It could take years to train artificial intelligence systems to comprehend the needs of modern-day society.