Biometrics and privacy

Big business, big brother are racing to develop technologies that use physical characteristics impossible to counterfeit to gather information about us.

July 8, 2013 23:45
3 minute read.
Teudat Zehut, Israeli ID card

Teudat Zehut, Israeli ID card 370. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)


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In the 2002 film Minority Report, Tom Cruise’s character is forced to go to extreme measures – distorting his facial contours and replacing one of his eyes – to avoid being detected by the same authorities for whom he worked. That might seem like science fiction, but big business and big brother are racing to develop technologies that use physical characteristics impossible to counterfeit to gather information about us.

Known as biometrics, countries such as the US, Germany, Switzerland, Spain and Portugal have begun using anything from fingerprints and the veins in our hands, to the iris and retina in our eyes to facial contours to create data banks of their citizens and develop “smart” ID cards or passports. The goal is to prevent identity theft and illegal immigration and improve law enforcement.

Meanwhile, businesses have begun working on marketing technologies that link our easily accessible facial contours to our Facebook profiles where a wealth of personal data reveal our tastes and shopping habits.

The Jewish state is embarking on its own biometric experiment. Citizens in Rishon Lezion and Ashdod will be the first to participate in a two-year pilot program that will allow them to receive smart ID cards if they agree to submit biometric data – fingerprints and facial contours.

The idea is to combat the widespread use in Israel of counterfeit IDs to steal state benefits such as National Insurance Institute stipends or to compromise our security.

A number of civil and digital rights groups concerned with the trampling of rights to privacy are up in arms over the issue. In July of last year, the High Court of Justice, responding to a petition by the Association of Civil Right in Israel and the Israel Digital Rights Movement, agreed that the creation of a database would be an “extreme” and “harmful” measure.

Only after the government agreed to reexamine the project did the High Court dismissed the petition, saying it was premature to issue a ruling because the pilot had yet to be launched.

Apparently in the wake of the court’s criticism, the Interior Ministry changed certain aspects of the biometric database. And the program is voluntary. Those who opt not to provide data will not have to.

Nevertheless, concerns remain. While the benefits of smart ID cards are clear, the compilation of a biometric database is highly intrusive and can compromise privacy.

Facial recognition technologies will allow Israeli security personnel, using nothing more than a camera, to scan a crowd at, say, an airport terminal, and check the faces against a database to weed out a potential terrorist.

But the same technology in the wrong hands can be wrongly exploited to gather information without the knowledge of the person being investigated. Israeli citizens deemed to hold opinions that are “politically questionable” such as right-wing “hilltop youth” or left-wing boycott activists who demonstrate against the security barrier might be intimidated. We do not cover our faces.

But our faces should be private in the sense they should not be tagged with our identities without our permission.

Concentrating information in a central database exposes Israeli citizens to international hackers. The recent mass theft of credit card information from Israeli banks by Saudi and Iranian hackers is proof that data cannot be completely secured. And when it comes to verifying identity, biometrics can only confirm that the person being inspected is the same person who enrolled in the system.

But what if an individual uses bogus “foundation” documents (birth certificate, marriage certificate etc)? What if hackers succeed in connecting someone else’s name to my biometric information? How will I prove I am me? The very technologies used to prevent identity theft might be manipulated to make detection of such theft impossible.

The debate over the introduction of a biometric database in Israel or, for that matter, in any country, raises serious questions. Like it or not, we live in an era in which it is becoming increasingly easy to obtain details about us.

Often this information is provided voluntarily on Facebook and other online networks.

While Minority Report-type technologies might still be so much science fiction, the day is quickly approaching when intimate information about every one of us will be readily available and privacy will be a thing of the past.

We must find ways of balancing the right to privacy with technological developments.

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