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Privacy Law and Policy Reporter (PLPR)
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Davies, Simon --- "The brave new world of biometric identification" [1995] PrivLawPRpr 18; (1995) 2(2) Privacy Law & Policy Reporter 30

The brave new world of biometric identification

A new wave of identification systems using unique physical features is arriving in the public and private sectors throughout the world. As Simon Davies reports, the technologies carry great promise, but are sure to ignite debate over their implications for individual privacy.

A new wave In 1994, an intriguing new immigration lane appeared at New York's John F Kennedy (JFK) Airport. What distinguishes it from the traditional immigration procedure is the complete absence of officialdom. The new lane is entirely controlled by computer technology and can automatically identify and process a passenger in as little as 20 seconds.

Known as FAST (Future Automated Screening for Travellers), the lane identifies passengers from the characteristics of their hand, rather than from their passport and photograph. It then connects with US Government computer systems to determine the passenger's status.

These automated immigration lanes are appearing throughout the world - in Toronto, Frankfurt, Amsterdam and on the US-Mexico border - as part of an international experiment intended to revolutionise the world's immigration systems.

The JFK project, called INSPASS (Immigration and Naturalisation Service Passenger Accelerated Service System) has for the past 14 months been operating as a voluntary system for frequent travellers. More than 30,000 people have so far enrolled in the system, a figure which increases by almost a thousand a week. Governments in 26 countries are monitoring the project.

If the INSPASS trial is successful, the technology may ultimately make conventional ID cards and passports redundant. And, as a trade-off for faster immigration processing, passengers will have to accept a system which has the potential to generate a vast amount of international traffic in their personal data. Ultimately, a universal immigration control system may be linked to a limitless spectrum of other information, such as police and tax systems.

INSPASS operates on the basis of 'biometrics', a process which identifies people by their physical characteristics rather than through a PIN number, password or document. The best known forms of biometry are fingerprinting, retina scans, hand geometry, voice recognition, and digitised photography. One of the key advantages of biometry is its ability to sidestep many conventional identification problems.

The quest for perfect identity

The accurate identification of individuals has always been a key concern for governments and private sector organisations. The development of identification systems is important to organisations because it offers one contributing solution to fraud and administrative inefficiency. Such initiatives can offer benefits to the client as well as to the administration. For these reasons, organisations increasingly strive to achieve 'perfect identity' of their clients.

Conventional forms of identification have always been subject to fraud and manipulation. Card systems are the most vulnerable. Fake 'blanks' of even the highest integrity cards are generally available in Singapore or Thailand within weeks of issue. The general availability of sophisticated computer machinery has placed the ability to forge such documents in the hands of a much wider group of criminals than would have been the case in earlier years.

The greatest problem facing benefits organisations, however, is the existence of multiple identities. Since most card systems rely on a pre-existing numbering or registration system, a lax identification procedure in the pre-existing system will give rise to a corresponding slackness in the card issue.

Many current numbering systems are inadequate. The Social Security Number (SSN) in the US has become a de facto national identifier, despite admissions by the Social Security Administration that between four and ten million false or illegal numbers are in circulation. The government of Sweden, which instituted the first national identity system 50 years ago, is now claiming that the system facilitates fraud. Limitations are now being set on the uses of the number, and the Swedish Data Inspectorate is moving to break the number's monopoly.

The development of high integrity systems is, however, fraught with problems. An overly rigorous identification procedure could prove unpopular, forcing some people to drop out of the system, and inviting a degree of civil disobedience in others. On the other hand, lax and ineffective procedures leave organisations vulnerable to fraud. A key focus of information systems security in recent years has been to create ways of establishing accurate identity without the trappings of Big Brotherism.

There are three conventional forms of identification in use today. The first is something you have, such as a card. The second form is something you know, such as a password or PIN number. The third is something you are or something you do, such as a fingerprint, handwriting, or voice print. This latter form of identification is biometrics, and it represents an unprecedented intimacy between information technology and the individual.

Biometric technology offers the prospect of highly accurate identification, but involves some difficult technical and public relations problems. In Western nations, the use of fingerprinting invites the stigma of criminality. Technical difficulties also dominate the use of sophisticated identification technology. Many systems do not live up to expectations because they fail to take into account the needs of people, or because manufacturers provide inadequate testing under sterile and controlled conditions.

Flawed identity checking is very costly for organisations. It results in unnecessary duplication, fraud and client disruption. A high integrity universal biometric system would, from the perspective of information users, be an ideal solution. Yet from the perspective of privacy and autonomy, the move to such a universal form of identity carries enormous risk. There is a possibility of 'statelessness' arising where the system requires an increasing level of compliance which some people cannot or will not accept, and thus end up being denied a range of services. Errors or failure in one part of the system may lead to a domino effect involving suspension of benefits or entitlements in other areas. Most importantly, the autonomy and freedom of individuals may be compromised because of the scale and nature of information collection.

Nevertheless, in recent years biometric technology has reached a remarkable level of sophistication, and despite the general lack of independent testing, it can be assumed that its accuracy far surpasses other forms of identification.

The 'Iriscan' system, for example, conducts a scan of the eye, and is generally accurate to 10. In other words, in theory at least no two human beings on the planet will register the same eye scan. The hand geometry system used by INSPASS has not, to this point, produced two like identifications.

Digital fingerprint recognition is now capable of remarkable accuracy. The Biometric Technologies Company in the US, for example, is in the final stages of developing a biometric fingerprinting system using neural networks that mimic the functions of the human brain. Some laboratory tests are showing an accuracy of 0.0001 per cent or one false identification per million scans. Known as Printscan 3, the device is expected to be released this year at a cost of AUD$800 per unit, making it financially viable for most organisations.

Perfect ID in an imperfect world

Governments and corporations throughout the world are adopting biometrics. Spain is planning a national fingerprint system for unemployment benefit entitlement. Russia has announced plans for a national electronic fingerprint system for banks. Jamaicans will shortly need to scan their thumbs into a database before qualifying to vote at elections. Blue Cross and Blue Shield in the US have plans to introduce nationwide fingerprinting for hospital patients. This may be extended into more general medical applications.

The INSPASS project is a natural extension of this activity. With its alleged capacity for 'perfect identity checking', the system is ideally suited to European demands for a 'hard outer shell' to control illegal entry.

A draft evaluation of the system has given INSPASS the green light. INS officials are now confident that universal project can be established, using common international standards and a smart card system that can cope with either a hand geometry or a fingerprint scan. According to staff working with the INSPASS project, all European governments are committed to the goal of automated immigration processing.

The Home Office in the UK says it is monitoring INSPASS 'with interest', though INS officials say the interest is very strong. Most other European countries are anxious to implement a more efficient immigration system.

The thorny question is whether such a system might ultimately be manipulated by governments and airline companies anxious to receive more information about passengers. Such a database of hand prints might find its way into general use by the governments of developing countries, but it is also a fair bet that Western nations will think of ingenious ways to extend the system. The same risk applies to other biometric applications. Unless caution is exercised, we may end up with a system of perfect identities in a world that cannot cope with perfection.

Simon Davies


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