In the blink of an eye, we have witnessed a massive change in the way Americans identify themselves. No longer are just your driver’s license or Social Security card needed. Instead, eyes, ears, noses and even heartbeats are new identifiers tied to a wave of technology utilizing biometrics. But how accurate are identifiers like facial recognition or fingerprints? And should we feel comfortable being tracked by our faces, hands or walk strides? It’s a scary new world, and, as often happens, it will take time for consumer protections to catch up to these new tech toys and the massive data files they compile on Americans daily.
Biometrics—the use of unique body measurements—is not new science. Researchers have studied and discussed it since the 1940s. The concerns involving privacy and dignity have also been around for decades.
Surveillance and identification
With video cameras on thousands of street corners, we are watched every day. Originally touted as crime-fighting tools, these devices can record vast amounts of personal data.
Fingerprints were the first biometric identifiers to gain widespread use, but retinal scans, palm prints, even voice patterns are now commonplace. In theory, biometrics can help to identify terrorists or other fugitives. However, the risk of false identification is a clear and present danger. There is considerable risk incorporated in this technology and data breaches create a different sort of potential for harm.
Government data gathering
The U.S. Government has amassed significant databases full of DNA and other biometrics. CODIS is the national repository for DNA samples collected after conviction, and in some cases, before one.
The FBI also maintains an enormous collection of biometric markers called Next Generation Identifier (NGI), a lesser-known storehouse of data files on millions of Americans. While both CODIS and NGI allow for file deletion, the burden of removal is on those who land in these repositories without any criminal history.
Perhaps the expectation of no bias in facial recognition and other biometrics was flawed from the beginning. It is not humans who make the matches but algorithms. These formulas are only as good as their coding, and in many areas, they reveal significant shortcomings.
Because most tools are designed with middle-aged adult users in mind, children and elderly individuals generated are more likely to return false positives in facial recognition biometrics. In addition to age, ethnicity can also be significant factor in accuracy rates.
State protections could help
Only a few states such as Illinois and Texas currently protect consumers from this technology. In 2008, Illinois passed a law requiring businesses to obtain prior consent from residents before their biometric markers can be collected.
Protection advocates must play catch up as these technologies evolve rapidly. This year, several U.S. Senators introduced the “Facial Recognition and Biometric Technology Moratorium Act of 2020.” If adopted, it would prohibit federal biometric surveillance or access to biometric databases managed by other entities. A moratorium would give regulators time to evaluate all the privacy risks and hopefully get a grip on protecting user privacy in this brave new world of biometric identification.
This year, several U.S. Senators introduced the “Facial Recognition and Biometric Technology Moratorium Act of 2020.” If adopted, it would prohibit federal biometric surveillance or access to biometric databases managed by other entities. A moratorium would give regulators time to evaluate all the privacy risks and hopefully get a grip on protecting user privacy in this brave new world of biometric identification.
Protecting your data
The bottom line is, until the laws catch up with the technology, we are all responsible for understanding the risks biometrics pose to our privacy. You may not have any power to remove your identifying data from FBI databases, but there are plenty of people you could be willingly giving or handing your biometrics to.
Every device or app that you access with your fingerprint, voice or facial recognition is another company you are giving permission to have your personal data. It’s important to consider who you want to give access to your identifying information.
Check out additional ways to protect your privacy in the internet age.
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