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Post: Your Digital Self: Biometrics such as face-recognition software have a dark side

Due to the increasing need for security, the use of biometrics is growing exponentially.

Government agencies use it for border control, national identification cards, voter registration and passports. Private businesses are also utilizing biometrics, such as for point-of-sale purchases and employee clock-in systems.

Financial institutions prefer it for identification purposes along with PINs and bank cards, and health-care-management applications are trending toward iris-recognition technology to establish accurate patient identification.

To better understand how the public and private sectors use these technologies, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy published a request for information (RFI) in the Federal Register.

The input was requested on past deployments, proposals, pilots or trials, and the current use of biometric technologies for the purpose of identity verification, identification of individuals and inference of attributes including individual mental and emotional states. The resulting document offers an unmatched insight into current practices and plans of both private and public subjects.

In its 1,100-plus pages, the document goes into great detail concerning the implementation of individual biometric solutions and policies of various companies, such as the use of dental arches as unique biometric identifiers by orthodontist Lamont Gholston, or the use of voice biomarkers for identifying individual patients and their needs by health insurers.

Great care has been taken by applicants to portray themselves as progressive and responsible when discussing the sensitive topic of biometric data. Issues with privacy and anonymity, surprisingly, haven’t been downplayed by the majority of the applicants, but some have weighed these issues to be less important than the potential for growth that biometric data collection and processing can accomplish. And therein lies the problem.

While biometric technology can certainly improve and speed up identification procedures and make it more robust and less prone to manipulation, it also carries unique risks that could be detrimental for civil society and democracy as a whole.

Ella Jakubowska, a policy adviser at the European Digital Rights (EDRi) who leads the Reclaim Your Face campaign, explains: “When such data is collected, it affects us in numerous ways. It not only obliterates your anonymity, but governments and companies are storing this information in databases, based on which they create a picture of who you are, what you do and feel.”

She adds: “[I]f you are someone who raises an oppositional voice, this data allows the authorities to check what you were doing, where you were going three years ago, for example. It may sound very dystopian, but there are plenty of harmful examples of how biometric mass surveillance is used in harmful ways across Europe.”

In short, biometrics can curb free expression, from talking to journalists to voting.

On the other side, proponents of the technology point out that its use is necessary to regulate the society of the future. One is Ganesh Mani, an adjunct faculty member of Carnegie Mellon University.

Mani notes that “[T]echnology has evolved, and societal behavior has changed. The recent pandemic has also brought some behavior changes into focus. Citizen rights, their protection, as well as broader societal implications must evolve to reflect the new reality and contemporary, quotidian use cases.”

He goes on to list cases where biometrics can be immensely useful:

  1. For triage (along with other AI techniques) — to decide whether to summon a law enforcement officer, a social worker or a reconnaissance expert.

  2. By introducing people or traffic flow efficiencies (e.g., while boarding a plane or at a toll booth).

  3. Personalization and accommodation of special needs persons (e.g., alternative biometrics, a non-biometric mechanism to establish identity).

He does, however, recognize the risks that come with the technology, such as error rates, brittleness and bias, privacy issues and explainability.

Other proponents of biometrics conclude that the technology isn’t dangerous as long as it’s applied in an appropriate way. This part I can definitely agree with, but as always, the devil is in the details, and what’s appropriate to some might not be appropriate to others.

The world around us is in constant flux, with changes and technological advancement occurring at an unprecedented pace. Global society shouldn’t simply adopt the corporate mantra of “moving fast and breaking things,” especially when things at risk of getting broken are fundamental rights, such as privacy.

However, this doesn’t mean we need to shun progress. Biometric technology is another tool that can, and should, be used to achieve a certain pragmatic purpose. For example, no one can argue that it can amplify security protocols within a military setting.

However, can the same be said about using biometric technology to enter a public venue, or for online authentication? Or would other methods achieve the same purpose while safeguarding privacy and anonymity, which is protected by the First Amendment?

As you can see, risks and benefits need to be carefully weighed. We need to have a public debate about the use of biometric technology and its implications for our society — a debate that doesn’t sidestep those it will affect the most: average citizens.

If we don’t take into account the public interest and let those who profit the most from the outcome make decisions, it’s only fair to expect the technology to be abused, with potentially devastating consequences.

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